OTTAWA - The strong chemical scent that wafts from a just-opened can of paint is actually the smell of Canada's second-largest contributor to smog after vehicle emissions.

So says the federal government as it proposed limits Saturday on the so-called volatile organic compounds (VOC), which cause the odour and are found in everything from house paint to nail polish and vehicle coatings.

Standing before a backdrop of stacked paint cans at an Ottawa hardware store, Environment Minister John Baird announced a plan to reduce the amount of the smog-causing additives in a slew of household and commercial products.

"It's hard to imagine that painting your house or refinishing the painted surface of your vehicle actually contributes to smog," he said.

"But these actions do just that."

When VOCs are released into the atmosphere, they combine with other air pollutants to form ground level ozone and particulate matter - the main ingredients of smog.

The government's proposed regulations would limit the VOCs in three areas:

-Consumer products, including nail polish, adhesives, caulking, shaving cream and deodorant.

-Architectural coatings, including paints, stains and varnishes.

-Automotive refinishing products, including coatings and surface cleaners used in vehicle refinishing or repairs.

But VOCs come from other sources, too.

The government estimates Canada's VOC emissions in 2005 totalled 1,383 kilotonnes.

That's not counting VOC emissions from oilsands development, forest fires, and oil and gas exploration and development.

If you don't count those, then transportation accounts for about 42 per cent of VOC emissions.

Environment Canada says solvents in consumer and commercial products make up 28 per cent of the total VOC emissions, the second largest source after transportation.

The three areas Baird singled out fall into the solvents in consumer and commercial products category.

Draft VOC regulations published Saturday in the Canada Gazette show that in 2005 consumer products accounted for 35.8 kilotonnes, architectural coatings for 51 kilotonnes and automotive refinishing products for 5.5 kilotonnes.

That's just below seven per cent of all VOC emissions - again, not counting emissions from oilsands development, forest fires, and oil and gas exploration and development.

At least one opposition critic wasn't impressed.

"They did this around phosphates and blue-green algae, right, where they went out and made some regulations on detergent and said, 'Here, we're going to ratchet it down,"' said NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen.

"But they know it's one or two per cent of the phosphate loading that's going on in the environment, where really the issue is fertilizers."

The proposed regulations would take effect in 2010.

Over a 25-year period, the government expects to lower VOC emissions from consumer products by 602.5 kilotonnes, in architectural coatings by 506 kilotonnes and automotive refinishing products by 71.2 kilotonnes.

The government plans to hire inspectors to enforce the regulations, at a total cost of $14 million.

An industry representative says it will cost the sector several hundred million dollars to lower VOC levels.

Jim Quick, president of the Canadian Paint and Coatings Association, says consumers may also notice a decrease at first in the adhesiveness and durability of coatings and solvents.

Typically, VOCs make coatings and solvents more adhesive and durable.

"Exterior deck stains, which people use to do their decks, the (VOC concentration) number they're asking us to go to is one we think we're going to have difficulty getting to," Quick said.

"So, that means they'll have to re-do their decks more often and that sort of thing.

"Our question then for government is: if you're increasing the number of applications, are you actually getting an environmental benefit for that?"

Baird acknowledged the lower VOC levels could mean having to paint or stain more often, but says it's up to industry to come up with better products.

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