What does VOC mean?

Everything you wanted to know about the paint buzzword

By Anna Simmons


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The latest eco-buzzword around paint is VOCs, which stands for “volatile organic compounds.” When you break down the acronym, you have “volatile,” which means the substance is easily evaporated; “organic,” which tells us the material is carbon-based; and “compound,” which means it’s a mixture of various atoms.

VOCs are found in many common products, including pressboard furniture and the gas you put in your car. So, what makes them bad?

These pollutants contribute to the formation of both particulate matter and ground-level ozone, two of the main components that create smog,” Environment Canada spokesperson Sujata Raisinghani says. “Smog has been shown to have adverse impacts on human health.”

So, if VOCs are bad for our health, one would think they’d be regulated.

“In Canada, no mandatory requirements pertaining to VOCs in house paints are in force yet,” Raisinghani says.

The Canadian government has published regulations that propose mandatory VOC concentrations in architectural coatings such as paint, stains and varnishes. While these regulations are proposed to come into effect in January 2010, no formal date has been set.

Although we’re hearing more about VOCs these days, low- and zero-VOC paints have existed for a while. Early products, however, lacked the performance of traditional coatings on the market. There was also confusion about adding colour to zero-VOC paints, as the colourant itself had high concentrations of these compounds. Recent advancements, including the advent of waterborne colourants, improve product performance and contain no VOCs, allowing for greener paint that also outperforms traditional paint technology.

Until the regulations take effect, Canadians can make informed choices on environmentally friendly products by consulting the federal government’s EcoLogo program. For a coating to carry the EcoLogo, it must meet or be below certain VOC levels; for example, an interior flat paint must not exceed 50 g/l. The EcoLogo website contains a list of products that carry the seal.

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