These issues are not completely endemic to low-cost hardwood flooring. Carpeting is notorious for harboring similar compounds, most notably in the form of fire-proofing treatments. Unlike flooring, carpet can also trap and harbor toxic lawn chemicals, some of which have recently been reported to be carcinogenic. Formaldehyde and benzene are also known cancer causing agents, meaning their presence in a home, even in small amounts, represent the potential for dramatically hazardous long-term effects.
Exposure to these chemicals can cause headaches, nausea, and loss of appetite in the short term, as well as irritability and abdominal pain. Over long periods of time, negative effects can be detected in the reproductive system, the liver and the kidneys. Exposure to formaldehyde can also cause breathing issues and pain around the eyes, nose, and throat, though reactions vary in relation to differing sensitivities.
In the late 1970s, the term "Sick Building Syndrome" was coined to describe the cumulative negative health effects of indoor chemical exposure, though the causes were poorly understood at the time. In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed at the federal level as an attempt to regulate and manage exposure and use of a variety of chemicals, though over 62,000 substances were grandfathered in, considered safe. In addition, the EPA only tested chemicals that were imported in large quantities, which presented an "unreasonable risk" to public health. These ill-defined standards have allowed many chemical manufacturers to fall through gaps in the policies.
We've previously noted the many benefits of wool carpeting, a sustainable option that is attractive for its hypo-allergenic qualities as well as the eco-friendly way in which it is harvested. Wool can be cost prohibitive for many homeowners, however, and some will just simply prefer a hardwood option underfoot. Fortunately for those individuals, cork flooring can provide another, equally attractive option. In much the same manner as wool, cork is harvested in a renewable fashion, leaving the tree from which it is taken still alive and growing.
While not every engineered flooring features harmful levels of chemical compounds, consumers are always wise to investigate manufacturing processes and companies before they buy. Though cost is often a determining factor, the wide range of available sustainable flooring options means that an excellent fit for any home or budget can often be found.
[Images: Materials and Sources, Aritmiya, Home Style Choices, and Ojibwa Building Supplies MN]