A wide variety of sustainable flooring options exist in today's market, and consumers are finding themselves increasingly attracted to both the aesthetic and health benefits offered by them. With the high degree of attention recently afforded to reports that Chinese-manufactured laminate flooring may potentially contain levels of toxic formaldehyde that can be dangerous in enclosed spaces, homeowners are wondering not only what their alternatives are, but also how chemicals and volatile organic compounds in engineered products could represent an unseen danger.
Earlier this month, CBS' 60 Minutes made waves in the building world when they ran an exposé of Lumber Liquidators, alleging that Chinese-made flooring sold by the retailer was non-compliant with California state standards for chemical content. Budget-range flooring often contains a press-board center, and it is in the glue used to hold that material together that formaldehyde can be found. Though the veneer which covers the flooring can keep some of the chemicals contained, over time, many of the toxic compounds can leak out, potentially "off-gassing" into the air. Other chemicals, like benzene, can also be found in the flooring, and it can often take years for the harmful substances to fully dissipate, as they release into the atmosphere of your home.
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.
It is fairly easy to establish that interior finishing materials manufactured with chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene are harmful to public health, as we've previously discussed here on the green blog. Many people, however, are not only unaware of the hidden dangers posed by these chemicals, but also of the other options available to replace them. A variety of sustainable flooring alternatives are currently on the market, and they are gaining popularity as the harmful effects of chemicals become more widely known.
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.
Reclaimed lumber, while at times limited by available stock, can be used to fashion an utterly unique floor, often boasting a complete lack of chemical compounds. In cases where chemicals may have been previously used, they have often already off-gassed from reclaimed lumber, leaving behind a far healthier alternative. Strand woven bamboo continues to be a popular option as well, both for its aesthetic beauty and the solidity of its construction, which leaves it resistant to warping or scratching. Marmoleum tiles, which represent a natural alternative to linoleum, are also constructed without the use of VOCs or harmful chemicals.
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]
Hi! I'm Karen Totino, owner of Green Conscience Home. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of our posts, so comment away! One of my goals is to get the community discussing some of these eco topics, and hopefully help each other out!