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April 12, 2013
VOC-free claims for paint

Following settlement of enforcement orders against two of the country’s largest paint manufacturers in October 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued an enforcement policy regarding claims by coating companies that their products are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

The policy explains how a coating manufacturer can assert that its product is VOC-free even if it contains trace amounts of VOCs.  The policy expands on guidance in FTC’s Green Guides, which explains how marketers can generally claim in their advertising that a product is “free of” or “does not contain” a substance when a trace amount of that substance is present.  The Green Guides do not specifically address such claims in relation to VOCs and coatings.

VOCs in tints

As alleged by the FTC, Sherwin-Williams and PPG Architectural Finishes made “zero-VOC” claims for two lines of coatings.  The FTC charged that while the claims may have been accurate for the uncolored bases, consumers generally buy tinted paint, which may contain significant levels of VOCs.  Under FTC’s orders, the companies were prohibited from claiming the VOC level of any paint they market is zero grams per liter unless they have “sound scientific evidence that the paint contains no more than a ‘trace level of VOCs.’” 

In its 2012 revisions of its Green Guide, the FTC states that a “free of” claim is appropriate for a product that contains a trace amount of a substance if:

  • The level of the specified substance is no more than that which would be found as an acknowledged trace contaminant or background level; 
  • The substance’s presence does not cause material harm that consumers typically associate with that substance; and
  • The substance has not been added intentionally to the product.

FTC’s policy

The enforcement policy addresses questions about how to interpret the Green Guide provisions with regard to coatings and VOCs.  Specifically, the policy states that a “trace level of VOCs” means:

  • VOCs have not been intentionally added to the product;
  • The presence of VOCs at that level does not cause material harm that consumers typically associate with VOCs, including but not limited to, harm to the environment or human health; and
  • The presence of VOCs at that level does not result in concentrations higher than would be found at background levels in the ambient air.

Environmental effect

The FTC notes that the policy’s definition of “trace level of VOCs” tailors the Green Guides’ general trace amount test in two key respects:

  • First, the “material harm” prong specifically includes harm to the environment and human health. This refinement acknowledges that consumers find both the environmental and health effects of VOCs material in evaluating VOC-free claims for architectural coatings.
  • Second, the policy defines “trace level” as the background level of VOCs in the ambient air, as opposed to the level at which the VOCs in the paint would be considered “an acknowledged trace contaminant.”

“The harm consumers associate with VOCs in coatings is caused by emissions following application,” states the FTC.  “Therefore, it is the Commission’s view that the first prong of the trace amount test for VOC-free claims for architectural coatings is the amount beyond which VOC emissions would result in concentrations that exceed the background level of VOCs in the ambient air.”

Additionally, the FTC states that it is aware of no scientific or regulatory body that has recognized a specific trace contaminant level of VOCs in paint or any other architectural coating.

Click here for FTC’s Enforcement Policy Statement Regarding VOC-Free Claims for Architectural Coatings.