LBWA--Clear The Air

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

So you’ve finished painting that big activity room in the community center—it has that “new paint smell” so all the users will know somebody cares about this facility, but is that smell really a good thing?

Probably not, because the smell is indicative of a chemical reaction that occurs when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted as the paint is drying reacts with the air. VOCs are in paint to keep other components—such as the pigment for color and the binder or resin that makes paint stick to the wall—in a liquid solution long enough for the paint to be applied. The VOCs evaporate rapidly, often called off-gassing, and combine with other molecules in the air to create compounds; some are harmless, some not. Anyone who has had a headache, nausea, eye irritation, trouble breathing, or more serious symptoms in a newly painted room has probably reacted to VOCs.

When parks and rec maintenance professionals sit around the table and talk shop about “Going Green,” paint isn’t always the first item that comes to mind. More obvious issues such as water conservation, air quality, or recycling might head the list, with paint running in a distant position.

But when you think about it, every facility in the parks and rec inventory, every building, inside and out, has some form of paint, varnish, adhesive, coating, or other finish, and every one of them contains VOCs in one percentage or another. Tens of thousands of people, from infants to more seasoned Americans, use these facilities and may have adverse reactions, so it is important to understand the issue.

The Green Movement

If any of this information so far is new to you, don’t feel alone. I was in parks and rec from 1997 until 2011 and never once to my recollection did someone come to me and say, “Hey, we have to start using low-VOC paints.”

VOC is a term that is related to the “Green Movement” and “sustainability.” From a historical perspective, all of these terms are fairly new to the parks and rec lexicon, even though the genealogy of the environmental effort goes back much further. 

Some say the “Green Movement” may have started as long ago as 1892 when the Sierra Club first met, chartered by noted preservationist John Muir. Others say the sleeping giant of public opinion was awakened in the 1950s with the smog problems in Los Angeles, or in the 1960s when people began to recognize the danger of DDT. By the 1970s when the first Earth Day was celebrated in the U.S. and 20-million Americans filled parks and took to the streets to support environmental issues, the movement was in full tsunami mode.

But the VOC term in relation to paint and related products is only now being pushed to the front of that wave, and parks and rec facilities managers are becoming fully aware and paying attention to it. 

VOCs are emitted from many different sources, natural and manmade, indoor and outdoor, although studies have shown that indoor levels are two to five times higher than those outside. VOCs are a large group of carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. Trees, plants, fungi, molds, and even animals emit VOCs at varying levels.

Follow Your Nose

Understanding the VOC-in-paint issue can be complicated. According to an EPA study, the VOCs in paint products alone account for 9 percent of the pollutants that cause greenhouse gases and smog, which contribute directly to global warming. One official I spoke to at the American Coatings Association (ACA) noted that it is a pervasive issue in the United States, but it is difficult to confront because it is still developing. 

In fact, the EPA was scheduled to issue new ozone standards in December, with predictably more stringent standards that will impact products on the market in the upcoming years.

However, the good news is that you don’t need a Ph.D. in chemistry to know what to do; your nose should be your guide. Generally speaking, the products that parks and rec facilities managers find on the store shelves will be compliant, some to a higher degree, some to a lower degree.

“People don’t generally equate the paint smell with a chemical reaction, but that is the indicator,” notes Brian Saylor, project manager at George J. Donovan AIA & Associates, an architectural firm headquartered in Pennsylvania that has focused on green, sustainable projects for more than a decade. Generally, the less you smell paint, the lower the VOC level.

“Our first project that really focused on it was in 2005,” he says, recalling his first encounter fresh out of college on a new job. “My boss came to me with a sketch on a piece of trace paper and said, ‘Here’s your next project, and oh, by the way, it’s LEED.’ I knew what LEED meant, but I needed to get real smart on it real quick.”

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It was developed and is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council and is an internationally recognized building-certification system that verifies a building was designed and built in line with criteria in several categories. These include, naming a few, energy savings and emissions control, water efficiency, use of recycled and repurposed materials, and improved indoor environmental quality. 

Know Your Materials

This last area is where parks and rec pros can have an impact, by knowing about the paints and lacquers, adhesives, surface finishes, flooring materials, and other coatings being used in their facilities. For in-house projects, they need enough information to know what to look for and ask the right questions when buying materials. If outside contractors are doing the work, the facilities managers need to confirm what materials are being used.

Just about all major paint companies, “big-box” home-improvement stores, and even some local hardware stores have their house brand of low- or no-VOC products. It has become a smart business decision because these products are now being actively marketed by paint companies, and the general public is beginning to demand them.

“It’s all about the marketing; we took a stand around 2007 to use only VOC-free or low-VOC products in our projects, mostly from Sherwin Williams,” affirms Saylor. “In my opinion, Sherwin Williams is the best. They’ve pretty much led the market, not just in paints but in all their products such as shellacs, stains, and some of the metal paints. You just can’t find some of these products elsewhere. And staffs at local stores often aren’t knowledgeable enough to give good advice to customers.”

While the VOC topic is becoming more well-known, Saylor still doesn’t believe there is a general public awareness, unless you happen to be in the coating business or a related business or use those products. “There just aren’t enough people out there educating people,” he surmises.  “If you go to a Sherwin Williams store, sure, absolutely, they’ll be able tell you because they embrace it. Local stores, even the big chains, may or may not have that expertise there to give advice.”

Practicing what he preaches, Saylor painted his own house with VOC-free paint and said, “I love it. It doesn’t smell and it dries really fast.”

Translating The Numbers

No- and low-VOC paints use different chemical combinations to bind other ingredients, leading to less “gassing” in the air. The upside is less smell and healthier air; the potential downside is that the cost may be slightly higher, especially for no-VOC paints, and the paint job may not last as long. However, paint manufacturers are making steady improvements in cost and durability as the public demand increases.

The ACA spokesperson noted that it is now a requirement for the VOC levels to be shown on each can of paint. 

Federal limits for VOCs in normal paint are currently set at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat paints and 380 g/l for others. From there, it gets fuzzier and can vary from state to state or even from county to county, depending on local regulations. California’s normal paint standards, for example, are 100 g/l for flats and 150 g/l for others.

Non-VOC paints average about 50 g/l, and no-VOC is 5 g/l or less. But these numbers are subject to interpretation and can change as federal standards change. I read in one online article that VOC content regulations were developed to help reduce outside emissions, not indoor ones, so even the low- or no-VOC paints may still contain VOCs that will impact the indoor environment.

As for the VOC issue in the future, Saylor believes it is just starting. “It’s in its infancy stage,” he surmises. “In the future, in 2030 or 2040 they’ll call this the Sustainable Revolution.”

For more information about VOCs, go to the ACA website at Also, my contact there said there are many good articles in the design and architectural magazines. I also discovered that most of the websites for major paint manufacturers have good explanations of VOCs and other products. If all else fails, go to your local paint store and ask for an in-person education.

If any PRB readers know of other resources on this issue, “clear the air” and share them with the gang.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email