Architectural paint is a product that is used in and on buildings everywhere. Paint serves important functional and aesthetic purposes, but it also has the potential to cause both health and environmental impacts. Low level exposure to paint may irritate or burn the eyes, nose, throat and skin and cause reactions such as headaches, dizziness or nausea. These symptoms are generally mild and will subside once the immediate exposure has ceased. However, high levels of exposure to some of the elements in paint, even for a short period of time, can cause severe and lasting impacts, such as kidney or liver damage, or respiratory problems. Substances found in some oil-based paint, such as formaldehyde and benzene, are carcinogenic, while others, such as heavy metals and phthalates, are human and ecosystem toxins.
By far, the most important environmental impact from paints is the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during the drying process after the coating is applied. Virtually everything but the solids in a typical paint formulation is released to the air.
Once in the atmosphere, VOCs participate in the formation of ozone. In the presence of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sunlight, VOCs react with oxygen in the air to produce ozone, the most toxic component of the form of pollution commonly known as smog. Ozone attacks lung tissue, and is very injurious, even in very low concentrations. To prevent the formation excessive levels of ozone, the VOC content of paint, and its conditions of use are subject to regulation by federal, state, and local environmental agencies.
U.S. EPA Volatile Organic Compounds Page. Starting point for EPA's VOC resources.