During the spring of 2015, “60 Minutes” did a thorough report showing just how unsafe laminate flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators was. The investigation went undercover to find that Chinese suppliers were lying about the levels of formaldehyde in the products.
Some samples had formaldehyde levels that were as much as 18 times higher than what was even acceptable by law. In other words, it was illegal to even sell those products in the United States, but these suppliers and retailers were doing it.
This investigation was enough to plant the seed of doubt with other flooring materials as well, and so other investigations followed quickly thereafter. A study conducted by Saferchemicals.org showed a high amount of phthalates in vinyl flooring. 100% of vinyl flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators contained these dangerous chemicals, although other flooring retailers were also selling vinyl flooring with high levels of phthalates.
So with all those reports of chemicals in flooring, how do you know which ones are dangerous for you and your family, and how do you make the right buying decision?
Known Chemicals in Vinyl Flooring
Let’s take a look at some of the chemicals found in vinyl flooring, and how they affect your home environment.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
It might seem obvious, but the major ingredient in vinyl tile products is just plain dangerous. PVC has been in the news for a reason, from underground pipes to plastic containers made with BPA.
Toys made of it have been banned in Europe and the United States for a reason. It’s a known carcinogen. Its manufacture is highly toxic because of the high temperatures needed in the process and the fumes this process creates.
There’s no environmentally friendly way to dispose of PVC since it isn’t biodegradeable. If burned, PVC releases dioxin, a highly dangerous chemical (it’s actually been named one of the most dangerous chemicals in our environment).
Formaldehyde finds its way into our everyday lives through many things like flooring, clothing, furniture, cleaning supplies, and is even commonly found inside the walls of a home. But just because formaldehyde is so frequent doesn’t mean that it should be accepted as normal, or even safe. It’s actually a known human carcinogen.
That’s because formaldehyde belongs to a group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These VOCs can enter into the indoor air for months or years after they’ve been introduced to a home. Known as off-gassing, this process can have major negative health effects over the long term.
Formaldehyde is more common in laminate flooring, where it’s found in the adhesive and resin. However, formaldehyde is also a concern in vinyl flooring, although its levels tend to be lower than in laminate flooring.
Phthalates have so far been a necessity in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flooring. Phthalates are plasticizers, which are components that need to be added to vinyl flooring to make it more pliable. Otherwise, the vinyl would be too rigid and break.
In recent studies, phthalates have been found to be endocrine disruptors. In other words, they disrupt hormones, which in turn can disrupt development, reproductive health, metabolism, mood, the nervous system, and cause birth defects, among many other things.
PVC is sensitive to heat because of its chlorine content. To ensure the integrity of the vinyl tile and make the chlorine less reactive, manufacturers add metals known as stabilizers. Most manufacturers have been steering away from dangerous heavy metal stabilizers like lead and cadmium and now are offering stabilizers that are marketed as low VOC.
For example, calcium-zinc stabilizers are becoming more popular, although as of right now their use is mostly for flexible PVC products and not vinyl flooring. Nowadays, most vinyl flooring contains tin as a stabilizer that’s been mixed in with carbon. These tin-based stabilizers are known as organotins.
According to the CDC, organotin exposure can have adverse health effects like skin and eye irritation, respiratory problems, birth defects, and cancer. Keep in mind, though – the study is only general in nature and these dangers are more likely in certain cases like on landfills or when PVC is being burned off in an occupational setting. As far as vinyl tile inside a home is concerned, there is probably some risk if the tile is exposed to direct sunlight or the area isn’t well-ventilated.
Either way, organotins can become rampant in the dust found inside a home. They also belong to a group of chemicals known as PBTs. PBT stands for chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. This means that they cannot easily be destroyed or degraded over time, can accumulate to high levels in our body, and are shown to be toxic.
Chemicals in the Adhesive Layer
The adhesives used for vinyl tiles can’t be ignored. These can be made of various chemicals like acrylic, latex, polyurethane, epoxy, phthalate, not to mention so many other possibilities. As far as off-gassing is concerned, the peel-and-stick option is probably better.
The top layer of the vinyl is probably why you chose it at the store. This is the part that has that three-dimensional print film pattern that mimics wood or stone. This layer is typically coated with a protective layer known as the wear layer.
If the tile is scratch-free and scuff-free, then the wear layer has a urethane finish over it. If the urethane is mixed with ceramic, the coat is known as a ceramic bead coat. Urethane is still toxic and carcinogenic, so that danger won’t go away just because it’s mixed with ceramic.
Also, most people think that a urethane-based top coat is only toxic while it’s still wet and that it’s safe after it cures. But remember that urethane can off-gas for days, months and even years sometimes.
Is There Wood In My Luxury Vinyl Tile or Plank?
Even if your vinyl tile looks like wood on the surface, it isn’t wood. While laminate is made from engineered wood, luxury vinyl tile (LVT) and luxury vinyl plank (LVP) are still made from PVC. In turn, this PVC is made from ethylene and chlorine. Ethylene comes from petroleum fuel sources (like crude oil) and chlorine is derived from salts.
Even if the vinyl tile is advertised as having wood plastic composite (WPC), it’s still not made with real wood. It just has sawdust that’s bound with plenty of plastic.
So don’t be fooled by the “wood grain” print film surface or strange ingredients most people can’t explain. Manufacturers use carefully worded phrases like “the look of wood,” or “inspired by nature.” They’ll even mention specific wood species, making you wonder if their flooring is being manufactured in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest.
Don’t let it fool you – it’s still mostly PVC.
So What’s the Safest Flooring for My Home and Family Then?
Although you won’t be able to eliminate every single danger in flooring, you can significantly reduce some risk by choosing greener alternatives. Here are some things to consider when shopping for your next flooring product.
Stay Away from Recycled Vinyl Flooring Materials
At first thought, most people would like the idea of using a recycled material like PVC, especially since PVC is such a problem on landfills and in oceans. But I encourage you to think again. Investigations in the past have already shown that the manufacturers aren’t being truthful. In just the past 10 years alone, major moves have been made to reduce and even ban some materials in PVC.
Do you really want to reintroduce a material into your home that followed these old standards? Avoid post-consumer recycled PVC materials that might have higher formaldehyde levels, arsenic, phthalates and even stabilizers like lead. Instead, go with new products from manufacturers who are being transparent and disclosing what’s inside their products.
Look for Non-Phthalate Plasticizers
As of the date of writing this post, there are no enforceable phthalate bans in the United States as far vinyl flooring is concerned. However, it seems that bans might be coming in the future. When considering how large a surface vinyl tiles require, as well as the fact that we spend 90% of our time in the same indoor space every day, the concerns become more evident.
In a 2016 study, Boys exposed to DEHP (a type of phthalate in vinyl flooring) in their homes developed rhinoconjunctivitis. This isn’t surprising considering that DEHP is a phthalate that’s been long known to be an endocrine disruptor in male children.
The European Union has fully banned three types of phthalates – DEHP, BBP and DBP. Three other phthalates – DINP, DIDP, and DNOP – have also been partially banned by the European Union. The United States has followed suit shortly thereafter.
Although these bans are for children’s toys only, most parents are concerned with babies crawling on vinyl floors that have shown to be made of as much as 40% of phthalates. Because phthalates are volatile and can easily be found in dust and affect indoor quality, they should be a concern for families with older children as well.
When looking for the best vinyl flooring, at least avoid these six dangerous phthalates. Manufacturers have started offering alternative phthalates that are supposedly greener alternatives, although some experts have the opinion that all phthalates are dangerous.
Even before the “60 Minutes” investigation came out, retailers like Home Depot had already started looking for alternatives to phthalates. As of now, Home Depot pledges that all of its vinyl flooring is phthalate-free. Lowe’s seems to be following suit, although Home Depot is being more transparent to consumers.
These vinyl flooring products commonly use non-phthalates such as DOTP, DINCH and citrate esters as plasticizers.
But Are These Non-Phthalates Safer?
The real answer is that we just don’t know yet. Governments and universities in both the United States and European Union have conducted research, but all the studies together add up to a large question mark. Some studies claim that the toxicity of these chemicals is lower, while others still found these plasticizers to be endocrine disruptors. None of these studies are conclusive and most encourage further studies.
That’s because manufacturers constantly find themselves reacting to reports rather than doing things right before their products even hit the market. After scalding investigations come out, manufacturers and retailers are pressured by the consumers and shareholders, while their stock price ticks down every day. So instead of fixing the problem, they quickly find another alternative as a proverbial band-aid. Sadly, these alternatives usually aren’t researched well enough to decisively know whether they really are safer.
This process, known as regrettable substitution, is all too common. Years after the effects of the “60 Minutes” investigation, scientists are now reporting for the first time that these non-phthalates are finding their way into our lungs and are being recorded at three times the levels of prior studies. As of writing this, there is no consensus view from authoritative sources on what all this means.
Follow California Standards
Out of all the states, California is taking a lead in demanding product safety and transparency.
California Proposition 65
Proposition 65 is essentially a database of chemicals and their allowable levels in a product before the product needs a warning label.
For example, if the vinyl tile contains the phthalates DBP, DNHP, BBP, DEHP, DINP, or DIDP that pass the allowed levels, then manufacturers won’t be allowed to claim that their products can pass Proposition 65 and display the “Clear and Reasonable Warning” label.
DEHP according to Proposition 65 can “cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” So while the list of chemicals is limited with Proposition 65, it’s still a fairly comprehensive standard that can help you find safer flooring options.
California Section 01350
Rather than look at the composition of a product, section 01350 is concerned with VOCs and off gassing. This standard tests for 35 common VOCs found in homes. Formaldehyde levels must be below 9 µg/m3 to pass.
Certification Programs Like FloorScore and GreenGuard Gold
FloorScore, which was developed by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) and Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI), is a way for manufacturers to voluntarily test their products for the same 35 VOCs that California Section 01350 requires. Products that pass this test are given a “green certification” by various organizations, such as LEED. This can be an advantage for commercial builders who want to earn green building credits and show that their projects are more environmentally friendly
For a homeowner, a vinyl floor that’s been assessed a FloorScore essentially means that the floor has passed VOC emission standards for indoor air quality. The FloorScore test does not test for phthalates.
Greenguard is another certification program. Administered by UL Environment, it has a basic and Gold test. The Greenguard Gold certification program meets all the requirements set by California Section 01350. This program, intended for schools and children, is thought to be the strictest VOC emissions test. Greenguard Gold also tests for phthalates.
Choose a Natural Material
Most people shop for vinyl flooring because of its low price. By the time you find the best and safest option in vinyl flooring, you just might find that it’s priced equally to a more natural option. No matter what kind of vinyl floor you pick, it will still be made of PVC.
On the other hand, natural ceramic or stone tiles are non-toxic and won’t give off any VOCs. Linoleum is also non-toxic, but you’ll have to make sure to buy the natural kind that contains linseed oil. Bamboo, cork, marmoleum and hardwood are some of the other safer options out there.
Maybe these are more expensive than most vinyl flooring out there, but they may turn out to be well-priced when you consider how much safer they are to your health and how long they will last.
There is so much to learn when it comes to the dangers of vinyl flooring. I’ll be honest with you – this post doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to vinyl flooring (no pun intended). There are obviously more factors to consider and experts that can go into more detail. Comment below and share what flooring you decided to go with in your own home.