Most Americans consider their homes as safe havens. But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the primary source of pollution comes from inside our homes. In fact, it can be two to five times more polluted than the air outside and contributes to more than 70 percent of a person’s chemical exposure.

Furnishings and building materials, such as paints, flooring and furniture, can release hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. VOCs are unstable, carbon-containing compounds that readily vaporize into the air. They react with nitrous oxide and sunlight to produce ground-level ozone. With manufacturers introducing ‘No-VOC’ or ‘Low-VOC’ paints into the marketplace, consumers should learn how these paints can affect indoor air quality.

Breathing in VOCs has been associated with an array of health problems, everything from allergies and asthma to cancer, cardiovascular disease and reproductive issues. Armed with this information, consumers have begun to demand safer alternatives, creating significant interest in water-based low-VOC and no-VOC paints instead of traditional oil-based paints.

“But as manufacturers introduce these products, it’s paramount that consumers educate themselves on the risks that still exist,” said Scott Steady, product manager, Indoor Air Quality, UL Environment (ULE). “When it comes to paint, there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there, and product labeling often confuses the consumer even more.”

According to the EPA, a latex paint qualifies as Low-VOC if it contains 250 grams or less of VOCs per liter (oil-based paints can have up to 380 grams per liter), while No-VOC paint contains 5 grams or less of VOCs per liter. Some states, such as California, have set stringent limits to minimize ozone damage or increasing smog issues.

“These regulations were designed to reduce outdoor VOC levels to minimize their contribution to ozone and smog,” said Steady. “So while lower VOC products are a good idea, and are making a difference in terms of our overall carbon footprint, they ’re not always an accurate reflection of the dangers paint might pose during its application in the home, as it dries and releases gasses.”

To better understand the relationship between VOC content and emissions from paint, UL Environment scientists conducted multiple dynamic environmental chamber emissions tests on a variety of paint and coating products with stated VOC content levels from 0 to 150 grams per liter.

Products were applied to interior drywall using standard application procedures and placed in environmental chambers. Air emissions were then analyzed for VOCs and low-molecular-weight aldehydes. Results demonstrated that there was no direct correlation between reported VOC content and VOC emissions released into indoor air. It was also demonstrated that a paint product with No-VOC content, according to outdoor air regulations, can still emit VOCs into indoor air.

Why GREENGUARD Certification?

ULE advises that consumers who want to protect their indoor air seek out products with its GREENGUARD Certification mark, which indicates a product meets strict emission limits. From start to finish, the GREENGUARD Certification process ranges from one to six months, depending on the complexity of the product, and representative samples of GREENGUARD Certified products have been screened in UL’s environmental chambers, allowing scientists to look for the presence of more than 10,000 VOCs.

“In addition to VOC content, we’re measuring VOC emissions during the painting process and afterward — that’s what make this certification so unique and important in the industry,” noted Steady.

The U.S. will spend over $300 billion on home improvements in 2016 alone. So it’s important to protect the quality of indoor air when purchasing certain products. To find GREENGUARD Certified products, please visit UL’s Sustainable Product Guide, which includes hundreds paint and coating products.