The Federal Trade Commission recently charged the Sherwin-Williams Company and PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc., two of the nation's largest paint companies, with making false and unsubstantiated claims that after tinting their paints contain "zero volatile organic compounds" (VOCs), which are potentially harmful chemicals. Both companies have agreed to settle the charges by ending the claims.
VOCs are solvents that get released into the air as paint dries. They can cause acute symptoms, including headaches and dizziness. The long-term effects are less certain, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some VOCs are suspected carcinogens. That's made low- and zero-VOC paints appealing to many consumers. But while federal and local governments regulate the VOC content in base paints, the colorants that get added, often at the point of purchase, are not counted.
These VOC-containing colorants were central to the FTC's complaints. Sherwin-Williams's Dutch Boy Refresh and PPG's Pure Performance paints are claimed to be zero-VOC, but both paints contain more than trace levels of VOCs after the base paint is tinted. As part of the settlement, the companies must either stop claiming these paints are "zero VOC" or clearly disclose that the claim only applies to the base coat.
Following the FTC settlement, David Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a news release that "environmental claims, like the VOC-free claims in this case, are very difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to confirm. That's why it's so important for the FTC to give clear guidance to marketers, like the Commission's recently revised Green Guides, and to police the market to ensure that consumers actually get what they pay for."
Tougher limits on VOCs could also eliminate consumer confusion. In 2009, Consumer Reports investigated the issue of VOCs in paints. One of the recommendation we made to the federal government was to set VOC levels for tints, after we found that they can more than double a paint's overall VOC level. We also called for a more sensitive method for measuring VOC levels of no and low-VOC paints.
Consumer Report's latest interior paint Ratings include several products that claim to be VOC-free. Benjamin Moore's Natura makes our recommended list for flat and semi-gloss finishes, and nearly makes it for satin, and the manufacturer says that both the base coat and the colorant are zero-VOC.
Update, March 6, 2013: Sherwin-Williams and PPG Architectural Finishes agreed to stop claiming that their Dutch Boy Refresh and Pure Performance interior paints, respectively, contain "zero" VOCs. In settling the charges, the FTC issued a new enforcement statement regarding VOC-free claims. Manufacturers must show that VOCs have not been intentionally added to the product and that the presence of trace VOCs will not, following application, result in concentrations higher than what would be found at background levels in the ambient air. The second measure ensures that colorants often added to base coats at the point of purchase are included in the VOC count.