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paint, sustainability

Why I Don’t Mind VOCs

By The Craftsman on Feb 20, 2012

There has been a lot of talk lately about VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) and how they are used in particular in our paints and finishes. And having just found my soap-box I'd like to say a few words from the perspective of both a professional in the home improvement field and as a homeowner myself.

First, as a homeowner I want to inhale the least amount of VOCs as possible. I know, as an informed consumer, that VOCs are bad for me to breathe (though they are not on par with asbestos and lead paint). So when painting my own house I try to pick paints that have the least VOC concentration possible, but I am not willing to sacrifice a certain level of quality for VOC compliance. I would be lying if I said price didn't matter to me as well, and the low or zero VOC paints are always significantly more expensive. It seems to be the organic label of the paint world.

As a professional, I should be more worried than a homeowner about the fumes. After all, I'll be inhaling them even with my respirator for hours a day over the years. That can really add up to do some damage to my health over the coming decades. But I'm careful, as should all professionals be, about how I handle these strong solvents to protect myself and my clients.

The problem arises when the government (the EPA specifically but other agencies as well) try to get involved to protect us from ourselves. I have used several products that are now no longer available due to increased scrutiny of these strong solvents and the pace seems to be accelerating. I understand the need for health and safety. And if there was a product that accomplished exactly what I need to do without having the harsh fumes then I would gladly pay a premium to use that product. Alas, there are not suitable substitutes for many of these products. And once they have been banned the professionals are left with the option of doing an inferior job and trying to explain to the homeowner why we can't do things as well as they did in the old days or simply passing on the job.

The Solution

Unless there is an equally effective industry accepted substitute for a product don't ban it. Of course, if it is something like asbestos that is clearly causing deadly forms of cancer then yes, it should be banned immediately and carefully handled afterward. But for something that simply "increases indoor air-quality" and doesn't cause any terrible diseases when used properly there should be no restrictions. The average homeowner is exposed to such small amounts of VOCs throughout their day that unless they recently painted their house, clean almost daily with harsh cleaning products, or put their nose to the gas tank when they fill up their worries should be minimal. The EPA claims that VOC concentrations have been found to be 2-5 times greater indoors than outdoors, which makes sense in our new buildings with such tight construction. So the old-fashioned idea of opening the windows for some fresh air may not be such a bad idea. Education is always the best way to protect people, and when professionals and homeowners are properly educated about these products they can use them as the responsible adults they are without having "Big Brother" make your decisions for you. It is a free country...isn't it?

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