Indoor Air Quality / Paint Emissions

For most property owners and residents, a fresh coat of interior paint in the latest trendy colour goes a long way towards creating pleasant surroundings. For some residents, though, the apparent odours associated with newly applied paint are a concern, both from a public health and environmental perspective.

As a customer-oriented industry, the global paint industry has been actively engaged in research to better understand the impacts their products have on indoor air quality. Scientific studies in Japan, the US and the EU have independently sought to characterize emissions associated with both the application and drying of indoor house paints, all to develop environmentally responsible products and to advise building occupants on the best way to mitigate potential indoor air quality concerns.

Remarkably, these independent research efforts have uncovered a common set of factors that, when taken together highlight a responsible approach to product safety that reinforces the industry’s right to operate. This summary is provided to document these efforts and provide a sound basis for continued, progressive product stewardship.


The Japan Paint Manufacturers Association (JPMA) research effort on indoor air quality impacts from paint arose from initial government inquiries in 1997 centring around reports of “sick building syndrome” among occupants of new, energy-efficient buildings. The concern at the time was that the use of common household products, including paints, carpets and cleaning products could be contributing to increased levels of indoor pollutants that, collectively impaired the health of building occupants.

The initial government concerns led to actions that sought to regulate the air quality in buildings, with specific emission limits specified for a wide range of building products, including paints, aimed at reducing potential exposure below acknowledged health thresholds. The paint industry, represented by JPMA, used these critical thresholds as critical metrics for the testing, and eventual certification of industry products for use indoors.

Commensurate with industry efforts, the government in Japan has also tracked emissions from products in the indoor environment. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, reports that over time, there have been demonstrable improvements in indoor air quality in housing arising from industry efforts to offer lower-emitting building products, including paints.

In general, building products, including paints, increasingly have used less Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in their formulation to meet the established emission limits. By 2003, however, with overall VOC emissions significantly reduced, the focus of regulatory efforts for indoor air quality in Japan moved to formaldehyde emissions, and the building construction constraints necessary to reduce occupant exposures and health risks. Over time, the testing program for indoor paints has focused almost exclusively on formaldehyde emissions.

Emerging engineering specification requirements for new construction and periodic maintenance supported establishing a paint emissions testing program to “certify” products suitability for use in the indoor environment. Emissions testing was done by independent laboratories and the results enabled paint manufacturers to label their products appropriately. In establishing the voluntary product certification and testing program, JPMA and its member companies developed improved standard testing procedures that allowed for reliable results that properly directed product use through a simplified label program.

Over time, JPMA and its members have come to understand the critical features of a valid certification program for paints used indoors:
  • Industry determines the paint is applicable for potential indoor substrates
  • Formaldehyde release is properly measured
  • The measured release and emissions data indicates established safeguards are met
  • Periodic review of the certification program ensures test methods and comparatives are still protective of public health and the environment
  • Product labels convey the acceptable uses for the products, and are widely recognized and understood

In continuing the voluntary certification program, JPMA notes its success, with over 200 companies participating and over 5000 (total) certified products on the market in Japan. Perhaps the most critical feature of the program in Japan is the collaborative nature of its genesis and management, combining the best elements of government-sanctioned safeguards, acknowledged critical assessment criteria and testing, and industry commitment to support comprehensive implementation and market transparency.

European Union

For some time, academic and government researchers in the European Union and throughout the world have been studying the impacts of building products on indoor air quality. Countless research studies have identified a wide range of potential sources for pollutants found indoors. While these sources are widely acknowledged, specific standards for building practices relating to indoor air quality in Europe have initially focused on fixed construction materials (like wallboard, carpet and insulation) and not included interior house paints, which were viewed as “removable, replaceable or subject to re-application”. While not subject to regulation under construction standards, VOC emissions from house paints are widely recognized as likely to occur and potentially contributory to indoor air quality.

While a wide array of regulatory approaches on indoor air quality operate in the EU member nations, in general, all centre around the interest of end-users to obtain products, including indoor, decorative paints, that do not result in exposures more than an established Lowest Concentration of Interest (LCI), usually referenced to exposures encountered in the indoor environment 28 days after application. These LCI’s are established by national government agencies.

To better understand the impact of potential regulatory schemes using LCI’s, the European Association for the Paint, Printing Ink and Artist Colours Industries (CEPE) analyzed available data and offered some initial guidance on the types of products that might achieve the 28-day LCI’s. Follow-up work is underway to collect additional data on products intended by the manufacturer to meet low emission limits, including available manufacturer testing for a wide variety of paint products in commerce.

Over time, the collection and analysis of available industry data on emissions and indoor air quality is expected to provide important inputs for wider health, safety and environmental assessments including Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) and the development of more detailed Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) profiles.

United States

In the United States, concerns for indoor air quality have been evolving over time as well, with multiple sources and pathways identified in much the same way as in the European Union. Consensus testing programs for product emissions and indoor air quality impacts have also all centered around evaluating changes over time, usually 28 days. This graph offers a semi-quantitative picture of the likely emissions profile of a typical indoor paint product, and the noted attention arrow emphasizes the need to evaluate continued exposures at 28 days:

While research studies continue to validate the 28-day testing protocol approach, new “green building” standards in the US are now requiring similar product emissions testing as part of specifications for a wide range of building materials, including architectural paints used indoors. Embracing more practical testing methods, a 14-day emissions testing endpoint is now acknowledges because, for all practical purposes, observed emissions from paint drop off dramatically long before 28 days.

To help the paint industry understand and address these new standards, the American Coatings Association (ACA) undertook research using established “chamber testing methods” to evaluate emissions from typical indoor paints. The goal of the research was to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of paint on indoor air and develop an informed technical position. Critical too, was the development if an improved analytical method that fairly assessed coatings emissions, and use that method to develop data to support a robust predictive tool and/or model for paint and coatings manufacturers. The long-term goal is to strengthen industry understanding of paint emissions and help position manufacturers to address emerging green building standards and future legislative or regulatory proposals on indoor air quality.

The results of ACA’s testing program affirmed several findings from research done in Japan and the EU. The VOC content of nearly all indoor paints continues to be quite low, generally meeting the most restrictive standards established in the US. Based on a “market basket” survey of indoor paint products, nearly 82% are likely to meet the lowest restrictive standard for emission criteria. Finally, the ACA testing data shows that there is little correlation between VOC content of indoor paints and the emissions profile (especially in chamber testing taken out to 14 days).


These three efforts, each done independently in different parts of the world, and each following a different exploratory pathway, offer remarkably consistent pictures of assessing emissions from indoor paints. The targeted research efforts underscore the importance of having consensus on important technical reference points for evaluating indoor paint exposure and developing product standards:
  • An acknowledged standard test method to evaluate both the VOC content of indoor paints (in general and for specific compounds) over a specific time (i.e. small chamber tests)
  • A clear indication from independent entities (i.e. government agencies) the profiled emissions coming from paints that are not considered a level of concern, and therefore should be achieved (by manufacturers as a minimum) to be protective of public health and the environment
  • The importance of widely communicating findings to industry, both to stimulate action and to assist in required advocacy.
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