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Formaldehyde in Your Floor? What Can You Do?

March 25, 2015

Laminated_Veneer_Lumber60 Minutes story has worried a number of people who have recently installed laminate flooring in their homes or offices. Anderson Cooper’s team reported that Lumber Liquidators, the largest retailer of wood flooring in North America, is selling Chinese-made laminates that exceed exposure standards for a toxic organic compound, formaldehyde. Of the 30 composite flooring samples tested by 60 Minutes, almost all of them contained formaldehyde above levels allowed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

What’s the big deal? And what can consumers or businesses worried about formaldehyde exposures do to protect themselves?

The big deal is that formaldehyde, a relatively cheap chemical present in some of the typical glues used to bind wood particles and laminates, is a known carcinogen.  It volatilizes at room temperature. At low levels, the gas can cause irritation to our eyes, nose, and throat. At higher and persistent levels, it causes nose and throat cancers.

What can you do to protect yourself from exposure?

First, reduce formaldehyde levels in your home. Consider replacing pressboard furniture. If you are installing laminate or composite wood flooring, or purchasing new furniture, purchase from validated sources of wood composites that ensure limits on the amount of formaldehyde.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that the safest sources of wood composite include:

  • Composite wood products certified as compliant with ANSI/HPVA HP-1-2009 (for hardwood plywood), ANSI A208.1-2009 (for particleboard), or ANSI A208.2-2009 (for medium-density fiberboard). These standards include limits on formaldehyde emissions.
  • Compositewood products certified as compliant with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Airborne Toxic Control Measure to Reduce Formaldehyde Emissions from Composite Wood Products.

The 60 Minutes story, however, highlights limitations to some standards and enforcement actions. For example, third-party certifiers (for CARB) conduct inspections of retailers that sell composites within California, but these inspections have limited capacity to ensure that products sold throughout the nation, and even the state, adhere to CARB standards. Manufacturers in China admitted to knowingly mislabeling laminate flooring as CARB compliant while Lumber Liquidators marketed and sold this flooring as compliant. Because retailers are not required by law to test for formaldehyde, consumers are forced to trust that retailers voluntary adhere to standards.

Second, remember that exposure depends on more than formaldehyde levels. It also depends on ventilation, room temperature, and humidity. You can reduce exposure by keeping the space well-ventilated, not overheated, and keeping moisture levels low, especially in the weeks following a floor installation. As the U.S. EPA says, “Formaldehyde emissions are highest when products are new and diminish over time so the longer a product has been in place, the lower the levels of formaldehyde likely to be emitted.”

If you’re concerned about a recent floor installation and want to test the gas levels in your home, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) offers useful info about finding verified testing companies and test kits that consumers can purchase on their own. When hiring an Indoor Air Quality expert, check their credibility with one or more of the organizations listed in the CSPC resource link above. Accurate sampling and lab analysis typically runs over a few hundred dollars.

If you use an off-the-shelf testing kit/system, a cheaper option than hiring an air quality expert, do due diligence to find an air sample test kit and laboratory that meets rigorous standards. CARB also notes that such tests may not indicate whether the flooring itself is the main culprit of elevated levels of formaldehyde. Indoor air can include a variety of sources of the gas, such as combustion from natural gas appliances, new carpet, some consumer products, and other new pressed-board furniture or cabinets.

Additional Resources

Additional advice may be available from your state or local health department, physician, or professional agencies or consultants in indoor air quality. Below is a collection of resources that provide additional info about formaldehyde and precautionary measures that consumers or businesses can take to reduce toxic exposures:

 

– Cyrus Philbrick, Communications Manager

& Michelle Gaither, Industrial Engineer

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