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  • Vivian Volz

Zero-VOC: Beyond the Headlines

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Did you catch the news back in March that the Federal Trade Commission had settled with PPG and Sherwin Williams over zero-VOC claims for their paints? No? Me neither. This bit of paint gossip didn't surface until I was helping a client check paint submittals for a project for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Where the rubber meets the road for paint product data, in commercial projects, is substantiating compliance with the specifications and the applicable VOC (volatile organic compound) regulations. For most VOC regulations, there are no types of paint with thresholds lower than 50 grams of VOC per liter of paint. (You'll see why this is important in a minute.) So, for most projects, a paint that claims "zero-VOC" is essentially equal in environmental quality and compliance to one that claims "less than 50 g/L VOC".

Retail consumers are the FTC's primary concern when it comes to protecting people against misleading claims. And homeowners and renters buying their own paint are attracted to headlines like "zero-VOC", but not likely to research further when they're standing in the home-improvement aisle. So the labels on the cans, the advertising, and the information available on the web site are all carefully corrected by the settlements to not be misleading at first glance. But Product Data Sheets, the primary source used by architects, interior designers, contractors, and contract administrators to evaluate paint, are also corrected. The FTC considers these documents marketing, too; and we in the commercial construction industry are consumers, too. But those Product Data Sheets can be more confusing than helpful, even after the settlement, for certain projects.

Essentially, the FTC found that Sherwin Williams and PPG were misleading the consumer when they sold their paint, consisting of zero-VOC base plus colorants with VOCs in them, as zero-VOC paint. Since I'm not buying the base to paint my house, the FTC argues, I'm not buying a zero-VOC paint unless, even with the tint, the paint only contains "trace amounts" of VOC.

The settlements, when we dig into them, allow a few different ways to claim "Zero VOC" as the headline in a data sheet.

  • The company can demonstrate that the base plus the colorants still contain only trace levels of VOC;

  • They can show that the tinted paint's VOC is below 50 g/L VOC, and say so, clearly, with the caveat that VOC may increase depending on the color;

  • Or they can make it clear that only the base is zero-VOC and that colorants may increase the VOC "significantly", and disclose the highest possible level.

Sherwin Williams chose, in the submittal I reviewed, to use the under-50 g/L rule on its product data sheet. So the headline says "Zero-VOC" and the content in the middle says "Less than 50 g/L VOC." This works for most projects, because, as I pointed out at the beginning, most projects are working with rules where 50 g/L is the lowest threshold for VOC in paints and coatings. It makes me do a double-take, but then I realize that 50 g/L is a threshold that's allowing the zero-VOC claim. (PPG chose the "significantly" method, which, from a shopping standpoint, is less satisfying, more frightening.)

However, and this is a big however: the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) now has some of the most aggressive VOC limitations in the country in their standard specifications. Exterior paints and primers are limited to 50 g/L VOC, and interior paints and primers can only have 10 g/L VOC. That's far more restrictive than LEED, more restrictive than CalGreen, more restrictive than South Coast and OTC. That's 10, less than 50, which means that the product data sheet for the interior product was useless in demonstrating compliance with those specifications.

What's an architect to do? Well, the Material Safety Data Sheet is another place we find VOC information, and it's regulated by OSHA, not the FTC, since it's not considered marketing. But by the same token, it's a safety document, meant to protect the painter, not the eventual occupant of the space. VOC isn't even a required piece of information. And architects hate to review MSDS - not just because they're ugly, but because they are the top step on a slippery slope of involvement in job site safety, which is not our job. (Our underwriters are adamant on this point.) But often, the only published place to find the actual VOC for the product, as opposed to "less than 50 g/L", is the MSDS. In fact, our Sherwin Williams rep on the VA job wrote a letter specifically directing us to use the MSDS to substantiate VOC compliance.

For VA jobs and other projects where the owner has very tight VOC restrictions, we can trot out that old language we used in the early days of LEED, that said something like "we review MSDS for compliance with sustainable design requirements only." Then we have to ask for, and get, the MSDS. I'd go a step further and list it as an Informational Submittal, the kind you don't stamp or return unless it's wrong. Better still, ask for the Environmental Data Sheet instead, which Sherwin Williams, PPG, and others are now beginning to offer.

For the rest of us architects and designers? Keep your eyes open - this ruling is likely to affect all kinds of paint and coating products' sales materials, not just PPG's and Sherwin Williams'. We're getting less than the whole truth on Product Data Sheets, which was always true, but the FTC is trying to keep it real. Now that the FTC has clarified the rules for claiming zero-VOC, we may see more paints with low VOC content calling themselves zero-VOC, because they can. Do your research by asking for, and reading, the Environmental Data Sheet.

And for manufacturers? Look closely at the rulings to make sure you comply, but do us design professionals a favor and go beyond the rulings. We have to look beyond your headline to do our jobs, so give us credit for understanding the components of your paints and help us make informed choices. Give us real ranges for your tinted paints and the real VOC of the base - don't make us ask for your MSDS.

You can go a step further, as Sherwin Williams and other companies are now doing, and offer Environmental Data Sheet or Environmental Product Declaration. These look like MSDS and are certified by a third party, but are all about chemical components and air quality, not job site safety. It's a good approach, if you must have a fluffy marketing Product Data Sheet. But the ultimate in making your paint easier for us to specify is making sure we can find your environmental data on your web site!

Learn more, and see the FTC's punning skills, on their blog.

For consumers and design professionals:

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