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New paint products let you paint without smelly side effects
Paint colorant in most cases adds volatile organic compounds to the paint. Benjamin Moore recently developed a system that allows the company to add color without adding VOCs. This allows the company to offer zero- and low-VOC in any color, where previously they could only offer light colors. - photo by Tom Reed

Choosing a paint color for the dining room or that extra bedroom that will now be a nursery is always a daunting task.

But color isn't the only option when picking your paint. There's also the choice of whether to use environmentally friendly paints with lower levels of volatile organic compounds — what gives a room that "new paint" smell.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are a variety of compounds considered VOCs and they evaporate out of an array of products, paint being just one of them. Conventional paints contain up to 380 grams per liter of VOCs. Low-VOC paints contain about 50 grams per liter.

The compounds can bother children or people with allergies. Some health problems may include eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system.

"The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic to those with no known health effect," according to "An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality" published by the EPA.

For many, the odor of paint is the most noticeable effect of the VOCs, and it's also the reason many choose to go with a low- or zero-VOC paint.

"That's one of the benefits that many people will notice right away if they're the ones using the paint or occupying the room shortly after painting," said Carl Minchew, director of product development at Benjamin Moore Paints. "That the odor goes away very quickly, or there is no odor to begin with."

Todd Seligman, a salesman with Gainesville Paint & Decorating, also said for those annoyed by paint fumes, low-VOC paints offer an advantage. The odor goes away after a couple of hours rather than a couple of days, so people can get back inside the rooms sooner, he said.

It's also better for those who have allergies or those who are more sensitive, such as children.

"Most of the ones that are concerned about it, I've noticed, are younger mothers," Seligman said. "Most of their concerns are for small children or they're expectant mothers. And then occasionally, I would say maybe 15 percent of the time, it's allergy related to someone who lives in the household."

Seligman said he thinks the market is ahead of the demand, at least in this area, but for Minchew the products are increasing in popularity.

"We're finding that they're quite popular. ... People want to do the right thing, but when they're standing there trying to make the decision their motivations are very complex," Minchew said. "And sometimes price driven, sometimes driven by using what's familiar, sometimes there's just general confusion. So we've tried to help by being very clear about why we think our green coatings are a better choice."

Minchew said he used Benjamin Moore's low-VOC products in his own home "because I understand the difference."

"We're exposed to so many things in the natural world out here, in the modern world, I think to the extent that you can reduce that, that's a good thing," he added.

The low- and zero-VOC products do perform differently, though. They dry faster and previously only came in light colors, because the colorants added more VOCs to the products.

"When you tint paint in the retail store, the materials that you use to tint with are adding quite a lot of VOCs in most cases," Minchew said.

But Benjamin Moore recently developed a new color tinting system that allows the company to add color without adding VOCs.

"There had been a performance penalty generally speaking in low-VOC paints and a lower or restricted selection of colors," Minchew said.

But that's not the case anymore for Benjamin Moore. Its line of low-VOC products, called Aura, comes in all 3,300 of Benjamin Moore's colors. Its line of zero-VOC paints, Natura, also comes in those colors.

"We made the investment in developing this zero-VOC colorant technology so that we could make better paints that were greener rather than continuously compromising paints to make them appear greener," Minchew said.

But even if you choose to go with a low- or zero-VOC paint, you've still got a problem - should that nursery be painted pretty in pink, snugglepuss or blue dragon?