Whether you're interested in working in a more environmentally friendly way or not, soon the interior paint you use–no matter where you live–may be a greener product. That's already true for a chunk of California and a large part of the Northeast, where stringent regulations over the last few years have ratcheted down the volatile organic compound (VOC) content permitted in paint and other coatings.

Southern California has led the country in lowering the boom on VOCs. "Everything seems to start in California," says Benjamin Moore senior marketing manager Jeff Spillane. "Of course, the L.A. area has the worst air quality in the country."

To bring its densely populated region into compliance with federal and state clean air standards, the South Coast Air Quality Management District creates rules to reduce ozone emissions. Paints and solvents are responsible for about 12 percent of ozone-forming pollution, the district says, so reducing VOCs eases pollution.

The logic is simple, but what it has required of paint manufacturers isn't. Not only do they have to comply with South Coast regulations, they also have to figure out how to deal with the rest of the country.

"One product may have three formulas, depending on where it's sold," Spillane says.

Currently, the South Coast district requires no more than 100 grams of VOCs per liter of flat paint; non-flats must have no more than 150 grams per liter; interior stains must have no more than 250 grams; and primers and sealers must have no more than 200 grams. In contrast, as of a few years ago, stains, for example, had as much as 700 grams of VOCs per liter.

In the heavily populated Northeast–where the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC) sets the rules–regulations followed suit as of January 2005. About half the region's jurisdictions already have adopted the regulations; the rest are expected to.

For Better or for Worse?

The million-dollar question is whether changing paint formulas has affected quality. Manufacturers can't just remove the offending chemicals. "If you just take the existing paint and reduce VOCs, there is a cost somewhere else in application or finish," says Leo Chippy, commercial marketing manager for Pratt & Lambert/Martin Senour.

Instead, companies need to either tinker with the formula or come up with a new product. Smaller manufacturers of natural and organic paints, meanwhile, simply go on doing what they've been doing for years (see "All Natural," page 92).

Fortunately, new really can mean improved. "Most of the bugs have been worked out," says Lynn Bicknell, owner of Bicknell Painting in Fairfax City, Va. "Manufacturers anticipated this whole issue." Bicknell's crews expressed some frustration a few years ago with the leveling of reduced VOC paints but don't with newer products.

Moreover, a special-use primer made by Zinsser does an even better job than oil-based primers, says Rod Zane, an estimator at Bicknell. Gardz can go on the wall right after stripping wallpaper, Zane says, and dries much more quickly than comparable oil-based products. Oil-based formulas tend to be higher in VOCs and have been targeted for replacement.

Although Florida imposes no restrictions, customer complaints about odor motivate painting contractor George Dean to use low-VOC paint. The owner of George Dean and Co. in Auburndale, Fla., says he's seen no noticeable differences in application.

Most painters who apply low-VOC products do so because that's what was speced, sometimes at homeowners' request, says Dulux Paints senior brand manager Dave Maurer at ICI Paint Stores. "But once they adjust to the new technologies, they're not likely to switch off."

Painting subcontractors for Bath & Kitchen Creations in Dulles, Va., report no concerns with the newer products, says Tiffany Keaton, director of market management. "And homeowners seem more concerned with whether the color will match their tile and towels."