Earth Friendly: Paint without the (literal) headache

Sept. 15, 2011 at 4:15 a.m.

Meridith Byrd

Meridith Byrd

By Meridith Byrd

Bright, cheerful rooms are hard for me to resist. Growing up, my sister and I were allowed to paint our room whatever color we chose. I have always gravitated (or rather, run) away from neutrals and instead, toward colors that are more fun.

For a few years, my bedroom walls were pink, then they were blue, then covered with posters of New Kids on the Block for a couple of years, then finally black and white.

I still love color; in my house, you will find an array of blues, greens and yellows on the walls. However, for the past five years, I have opted against traditional paint in favor of low- or zero-VOC paint.


The acronym VOCs stands for volatile organic compounds, which are chemicals that have a high evaporation rate at room temperature. VOCs are found everywhere and are both naturally occurring (methane and formaldehyde) and manmade (freon and other chlorofluorocarbons). They greatly diminish indoor air quality and can be found in things like paint, carpets and cleaners.


Common household paints can contain thousands of chemicals, including many known toxins, which are released into the air as paint dries. Some of these toxins are known to cause liver and kidney damage, and others have been linked to cancer. Indoor VOC concentrations are often 10 times higher than outdoor levels, but indoor levels can rise to 1,000 times higher during and right after painting.

Headaches, nausea, burning eyes and breathing trouble are symptoms associated with VOCs.

VOCs also emit toxins at low concentrations over long periods of time, which can cause symptoms to develop slowly. As expected, the highest VOC levels are associated with fresh paint; however, it is estimated that only 50 percent of the VOCs are released over the first year. The paint will continue to emit these compounds for years to come.


VOCs are used to keep paint in its liquid state until it is applied to your walls. However, many major brands of paint offer low-VOC or zero-VOC options, which use environmentally-friendly chemicals instead. I have used both low- and zero-VOC paints over the last few years and have been extremely happy with the results. First and foremost, I enjoy painting a room without being overcome by paint fumes. Typically, painting a room would give me a headache, but no more.

The first low VOC paint I bought was when I lived in Austin, and I bought it from a small store called Eco Wise. In recent years, the options for low- and zero-VOC paints, as well as primers, have risen and are very easy to find at both specialty paint stores and big-box home improvement stores, which is where I went most recently for my paint. Most major brands seem to offer low- or zero-VOC options, and for those of you who might worry about a limited selection of colors: fear no more. The possibilities are endless.

I have used these environmentally-friendly paints for my last three major painting endeavors, and I cannot imagine ever going back to traditional interior paint. Try a low- or zero-VOC paint for your next project.

Meridith Byrd is a marine biologist and invites readers to contact her at



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