You can paint a toddler's bedroom as long as you use the correct paint. Opt for solvent-free organic paints, and pass on brands with volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These chemical compounds give off a significant amount of vapors when you paint the walls, and can be organic or man-made. While not intrinsically toxic due to the low concentrations in household paint, exposure to these compounds can cause some unsettling side effects when inhaled, particularly for infants, small children and people suffering from respiratory disorders.
VOCs are used for uniform distribution of the pigments found in paints. These VOCs include aliphatic hydrocarbons, ethyl acetate, glycol ethers and acetone. Oil-based paints have historically had substantially higher levels of VOCs than latex paints; however, don't assume that all latex paints have low levels; this is brand-specific. Companies are trying to formulate paint products with lower VOC levels while still trying to maintain quality, spreadability and durability.
Latex paints contain water as the solvent and carrier of the pigments or color. This not only lowers the amount of VOCs in the paint, depending on the brand, but it also makes cleanup easier. Look for 100 percent acrylic latex brands that are free of VOCs. These paints are free of pollutants, phthalates, mutagens, ozone-depleting compounds, formaldehyde, toxins and carcinogens.
Avoid using any oil-based paint indoors, particularly in a child's room. This is because these paints traditionally have higher amounts of VOCs, and even need additional solvents for clean-up. Oil-based stains and finishes, usually used on wood, have higher VOCs, smell terrible for days, and should not be used indoors if you can avoid it. Always use a latex-based stain instead.
Determining the VOC Level
Companies seldom list the VOC level on the paint can. However, this is slowly changing as consumers pressure companies into listing this value. VOC levels are expressed in pounds per gallon. You may see a statement expressed as VOC lbs/gal or grams per liter as g/l. Most paints simply state the product has “Low-VOCs,” which isn't telling you a lot.
Green Seal Certification
A “Green Seal” on an interior finish can of paint means the paint has a VOC level of less than 50 g/l for flat paint, or less than 150 g/l for a non-flat finish. The green seal on exterior paint means that non-flat finishes have 200 g/l and flat finishes have 100 g/l. This seal also means the paint is free of hazardous materials, toxins and heavy metals. Green Seal is a non-profit organization that established the “green” standard for numerous consumer products, including paint.