Low VOC. Instead of using petroleum solvents as a carrier, low-VOC paints, stains and varnishes use water, which emits lower levels of harmful emissions than solvent-borne surface coatings. Low-VOC brands usually carry very low levels of formaldehyde and heavy metals (or none at all). Check your paint can to see the VOC level of the particular brand, because it varies across different low-VOC products. Low-VOC paints emit an odor until dry.Another element to consider when reading labels is the solids content: Solids or pigments can range in concentration (25 to 45 percent by volume). The higher the percentage, the less volatiles in the paint.General contractor Kirk Schilling uses low-VOC paints because California law requires the use of paints and finishes that don't worsen the air quality; by January 1, 2014, it will limit VOC content to 3 percent of the product's weight. However, Schilling doesn't think that the laws are actually helping the environment that much. "Low-VOC paints don't last as long as the higher-VOC paints, so projects have to be refinished and touched up more often, which ends up being more expensive for the homeowner. I'm all for sustainable design, but this should mean that materials should be able to stand the test of time, age and stress. If we're rebuilding twice as much because of inferior products, we're just adding to the problem of the environment."