Maybe you first heard about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in flooring through the well-known 60 Minutes report. Since that, I have been on a mission to find out about and eliminate dangerous VOCs in my own home’s flooring.
You’re probably wondering which VOCs are found in the flooring products of your home. Depending on the type of flooring you choose, formaldehyde will probably be the most common VOC in the composition of the flooring, although there may be dozens of others in a single flooring product. There may be other dangerous VOCs as well, including phthalates in vinyl flooring.
Luckily, many manufacturers go to great lengths to be certified for low VOC emissions. In this post, I’ll mention what to look for to make sure you’re getting the healthiest floor from all your choices.
VOCS Commonly Found in Flooring
Not every type of flooring material is made the same way. Since the manufacturing process and materials vary, so will the VOCs you may find inside the products. However, there are some VOCs that are found in many flooring materials:
Formaldehyde is primarily found in laminate flooring. It’s used for the adhesive and resin.
Laminate flooring usually has a melamine wear layer. Many floors have a wear layer to give it the desired look and features like scratch resistance and fire retardancy. Unfortunately, all this requires specific chemicals to be achieved. The wear layer releases these chemicals into the air over the years through off-gassing.
For pre-finished floors, the wear layer can become a problem when the floor is sanded. While you may not be able to sand and refinish a laminate floor, its wear layer tends to be highly toxic no matter what. Oftentimes this layer is made of a urea-formaldehyde resin, which can be even more toxic than the melamine formaldehyde layer.
Formaldehyde is used to create the resin overall, and it isn’t only in the wear layer. The formaldehyde is mixed with sawdust to create the core and backing of the laminate floor.
Although vinyl flooring doesn’t contain any composite wood, it still can contain formaldehyde in its wear layer and backing.
If you’ve already purchased your laminate or vinyl floor, make sure to let it air out before installing. Expose it to the UV light outside, or wait for the chemicals to off-gas after installation before sleeping in the room.
Considered a semi-VOC, phthalates are used in PVC products like vinyl tiles. Phthalates are a convenient way to make a plastic product more pliable and to give it the desired consistency. Unfortunately, phthalates are known as endocrine disruptors and should be especially concerning if you have male children in your home.
The fact that most of them have been banned in children’s toys in both Europe and the United States ought to tell you its dangerous effects on health.
There are other VOCs your flooring may contain like toluene, xylene, arsenic, acetate, benzene, and many others. However, this would depend on each individual product and the manufacturing process. For most products, the VOC content isn’t high enough to be a concern.
What to Look for When Looking for Flooring Products
As a general rule, most of the VOC off-gassing occurs in flooring that uses adhesives. The fewer adhesive layers a flooring product has, the less likely it is to contain VOCs. The underlayer of carpet needs to stick, as do the multiple layers of laminate flooring. All these typically contain a VOC such as formaldehyde.
What should you be looking for then?
Most newer standards are modeled after California standards, so it’s a good idea to check to see if the flooring is CARB2-compliant (California Air Resources Board Phase 2). This standard sets VOC limits for composite wood products, so it’s a great resource to use if you’re interested in laminate flooring.
There are also independent, third-party tests that can guarantee a low level of VOCs in certain floors. For example, FloorScore tests for emissions of 35 commonly found VOCs and follows the California Section 01350 standard.
Even more stringent is the GreenGuard certification program. Its Gold certification is considered to be the most stringent by many in the industry. Its website is a great resource – use it to do a search for each flooring product to find what’s best for you and your home.
Durability is also another thing to consider. Durability is rated AC-1 to AC-6, with AC-6 being the most durable, commercial-type flooring product. Unless you need highly durable floors for a commercial, high-traffic project, high durability may just be a selling point. Remember, it takes chemicals to make a product scratch-resistant and fire-retardant.
FSC-certified wood flooring is also a good way to ensure you’re getting a safer product in your home. This certification means that the wood is traceable, so any business in the manufacturing chain can be held accountable. Look at the standard white box most floors are packaged in. If it isn’t labeled and doesn’t have any manufacturer names or logos on it, it should make you wonder why.
Manufacturers who participate in the FSC program also have guaranteed to replant a new seed each time they cut a tree.
When it comes to carpet, look for Green Label Plus certifications to guarantee low VOC emissions and safe indoor air quality in your home. Pay attention to the carpet padding too and make sure it has been certified for low VOC emissions. If you or someone in your home has allergic reactions or asthma-like symptoms, getting the right carpet padding is very important.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to buy from a reputable flooring reseller. When the scandal about phthalates in vinyl flooring came out in 2015, Home Depot was found to already have been working on fully eliminating it from all their flooring aisles. The company immediately promised to fulfill its mission by 2017. Most of the other resellers hesitated or were less transparent. I’m sure there are other resellers as well that have made safety more important than profit that you may wish to buy from.
Natural Flooring Alternatives with Fewer or No VOCs
There are many natural flooring options. For example, natural linoleum and ceramic tile are a great alternative to toxic vinyl floors.
If you’re worried about the synthetic content of carpet but still want a floor that’s warm enough, why not buy oversized rugs made of natural wool in a neutral color palette? There are many natural fibers that can be used for rugs and carpet, like jute, sisal, cotton, or linen, for example.
Hardwood floors contain only as much formaldehyde as nature permits. As long as you can be selective in finding a natural pre-finish, a hardwood floor is a safe choice with barely any VOC off-gassing once it’s in your home.
There are some more exotic, or less frequently used natural flooring options.
Bamboo has long been known as an eco-friendly product, but you’ll have to use caution when selecting it for your flooring. Bamboo still comes from overseas, so you’ll have to buy from a reputable, transparent manufacturer. Bamboo also requires time to grow. If it’s rushed, it can make for a brittle, low-quality product. Pay attention to the adhesive used to hold the bamboo together. Even though the bamboo itself is natural, the adhesive may contain synthetic chemicals that off-gas.
Cork comes naturally from tree bark and is an excellent choice for flooring. The tree doesn’t have to be cut down at all and will renew by itself, while the cork floor can last for decades inside a home if properly maintained.
Should I Refinish Or Replace My Floor?
Generally, it’s better to replace an existing floor with a pre-finished wood floor than to refinish it. I fully understand that there may be cases to keep a floor, so this is a general, broad brush stroke kind of answer.
That’s because most wood floors have a metal oxide finish, usually aluminum oxide. When purchasing a new floor, this metal oxide can be a good thing. It doesn’t off-gas and can make a floor last for decades. But once you start thinking about refinishing the same floor, the metal oxide can become a problem.
The metal oxide can become airborne during sanding and pose health problems. When buying new wood flooring, make sure to look for how long the pre-finished layer will last and plan for the day when the flooring may need to be refinished or replaced.
If you decide to refinish your floors, it’s best to find healthier options. For example, water-based polyurethane will off-gas fewer chemicals than oil-based polyurethane. However, that shouldn’t stop you from oil-based finishes. There are many natural finishes and not all are synthetic polyurethane.
Ideally, you want to sleep and live elsewhere while the floor is drying and off-gassing.
But if this isn’t an option, it’s best to allow the area to naturally cross-ventilate rather than allowing the same air to circulate from your HVAC. Also, don’t forget to protect you and your family from the dust that sanding creates, as sawdust and aluminum oxide from the floor may get into lungs. It might be a good idea to invest in an inexpensive air purifier while the project is ongoing.
Are laminate floors bad for your health?
There is no direct evidence, although formaldehyde levels have otherwise been shown to be related to sick building syndrome and all the health symptoms that it entails. Remember the formaldehyde-ridden trailers that FEMA provided to Hurricane Katrina victims? FEMA had to pay a $43 million settlement after its trailers were shown to be toxic because of formaldehyde. Luckily, we’re steering towards lower levels of formaldehyde in our homes, but some products still contain toxic levels.
Does “zero VOC” really mean zero VOC?
Realistically, it’s impossible for anything to have absolutely no VOCs. For example, formaldehyde occurs naturally anyway, even if nature were left alone without any manmade effects. Instead, manufacturers follow certain testing standards that show their VOC content or emissions are low enough to allow them to make the “zero VOC” claim.