When it comes to building, renovating and maintaining a home, paint is a little like milk: It's a staple, a basic ingredient. And much like milk, which helped make the organic food movement a mass-market phenomenon, paint is leading the expansion of the green building movement, as stricter regulations, pressure from environmental groups and increasing consumer demand for eco-friendly products force manufacturers to produce paints with fewer dangerous and smog-producing compounds.
In the past few years, the marketplace for paint has undergone a dizzying revolution, with paint companies furiously researching technologies that will help them compete with new green lines in this changed universe. A number of startups, too, have introduced brands (several made with milk) that they claim are not only safer than conventional paint, but more durable and better performing than the paints billed as eco-friendly that came on the market in the early 1990s and failed to take hold.
Not everyone is happy about the shift. Many designers, painters and consumers who applaud environmental responsibility are nevertheless worried about the growing restrictions on oil-based paints, which contain high levels of harmful volatile organic compounds, and even on less hazardous water-based latex ones.
They argue there is no way, at least with the products now available, to replicate the sheen, consistency or lasting power of an oil-based paint, particularly on cabinetry, trim, bookshelves and other specialty jobs. And they complain that painting a wall or ceiling can require more applications of the newer paints made to be low in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, than of traditional latex blends.
Even then, the look is not the same, and flaws like rough brushstrokes are more visible. Painters say they have to apply five coats to get the look achieved with two of traditional latex. Six months after a job is completed, painters say clients are complaining that signs of wear and tear are visible.
Still, they say they support the efforts to protect the environment, and the demand from clients for safer, more environmentally responsible paints is growing stronger, especially among clients with young children.
Array of regulations
The environmental issues are complex, the regulations vary wildly across the country, and many questions remain about the performance of paints known as low- or no-VOC. They contain small or only trace amounts of volatile organic compounds, solvent additives that manufacturers have long regarded as crucial to paint quality. But they also release harmful vapors and greenhouse gases and can cause headaches and dizziness, can potentially exacerbate asthma and other health conditions, and can even cause kidney and liver damage if exposure is extremely high, public health experts say.
Oil-based paints, which contain the highest levels of VOCs, have been tightly restricted in recent years in California, New York and a growing number of other East Coast states. This summer the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose a stricter regulation that would bring national standards in line with those East Coast states. If the proposal is adopted, sales of oil-based paints would be limited across the country.
The rules have also required manufacturers to reduce VOC levels in latex paints, which are significantly lower than in oil-based ones.
Southern California has the toughest rules, and industry experts expect the federal rule to eventually reflect those standards. Anticipating a world of low- and very low-VOC paints, a growing number of manufacturers have developed paints to comply with the strictest standards, including Sherwin-Williams, Home Depot and Benjamin Moore, which introduced its premium low-VOC Aura line last year.
"We didn't want to have to go back and reformulate it every time a state changes its rules," said Carl Minchew, Benjamin Moore's director of product technology. "Our view is that what starts in California eventually finds its way across the country."
Benjamin Moore, which still sells oil-based paints outside of California and the East Coast states that restrict them, has marketed its Aura line as a high-performing paint, requiring only one coat, that also happens to be safe for the environment. It is considerably more expensive than the company's higher-VOC Regal line: $54.95 on average per gallon, compared with $35 to $42, according to company officials.
Minchew said the higher cost stems from the investment in the research and development that made the Aura line possible, and he expects the price to come down over time.
Other, smaller manufacturers, like Yolo Colorhouse in Portland, Ore., and Mythic Paint, a new Mississippi company, sell only low- or zero-VOC paints. They say they can match any color — any one of Benjamin Moore's 3,300, for example — and also offer their own palettes.
"Consumers are becoming more educated," said Virginia Young, a founder of Yolo Colorhouse, a brand that sells for $39.95 a gallon. "Three years ago, when we launched, people didn't know what VOCs were. On the West Coast, at least, that's in their vocabulary now."
Better, but not great
In March, Consumer Reports magazine released an assessment of 57 interior paints, including low-VOC ones, that evaluated their "hiding performance, surface smoothness, and resistance to staining and scrubbing, their gloss change, sticking, mildew and fading." The testers gave "mixed marks" to the low-VOC paints, although they said the products had improved significantly in durability and sheen since first coming on the market.
Benjamin Moore's Aura was ranked third among 21 paints in the low-luster category, which included conventional latex and oil-based paints. True Value EasyCare and Glidden Evermore, both low-VOC lines, came in sixth and seventh, respectively. But several other low-VOC brands, including Harmony, the Sherwin-Williams zero-VOC line, did not hold up to the performance tests.