Product Sector Guidance: Flooring

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installation of wood plank flooring

Flooring

Flooring is found in every room in every building, and is susceptible to getting scratched and degraded more quickly than other materials, releasing its chemical makeup into the indoor environment. This problem is exacerbated as flooring ages and deteriorates, leaving new exposure pathways for occupants. Low-income residents are put at an even greater risk as affordable housing rental units are likely to have cheaper, older flooring. While affordability of flooring is important, it is equally important that floors in affordable housing are durable and do not contain hazardous chemicals. 

Children under the age of six are especially vulnerable to the chemical hazards of flooring as they spend more time on the floor, have a higher incidence of hand-to-mouth behavior, have higher levels of absorption, have a faster inhalation rate and smaller body mass, and experience rapid nervous system development.

This section is based on the work of Healthy Building Network. Visit Building Products | HomeFree from HBN (healthybuilding.net) for more product guidance and information.

Type of Flooring

Chemicals of Concern

Health Concerns

Healthier Option

Natural linoleum

None

None

Linoleum is a safe product

Prefinished solid wood floors

None

None

Prefinished solid wood floors are safe products

Ceramic tiles

Antimicrobials, heavy metal contaminants  in imported tiles

Bacterial resistance, endocrine disruption

Buy U.S.-made products, buy unglazed tiles, avoid antimicrobials.

Solid wood floors (site-finished)

Aluminum oxide protective layer, antimicrobials, VOCs in finishes

Cancer, asthma trigger, endocrine disruption

Avoid products labeled as antimicrobial

Cork floors

Binders containing isocyanates (more of an issue in manufacturing)

Asthma from isocyanates (in manufacturing)

Buy prefinished cork and install it as a floating floor. Avoid products with topcoat layer of PVC 

Engineered wood 

Formaldehyde binders, isocyanates, VOCs in finishes

Cancer, asthma trigger

Buy pre-finished, buy with NAF (no added formaldehyde) binders or at least NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde), avoid antimicrobials.

Laminates

Formaldehyde binders, VOCs in adhesives, heavy metal contaminants in imported laminates

Cancer, gene damage, asthma trigger, skin and eye irritant, birth defects

Buy U.S.-made products, buy with NAF (no added formaldehyde) binders or at least NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde), buy flooring that does not require adhesives for installation.

Carpet

Coal fly ash filler in backings, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), antimicrobial additives, vinyl backings, dust trapped in carpets, phthalates, lead

Bacterial resistance, cancer, developmental problems and birth defects, reproductive disruptor

Buy carpets without stain resistant and antimicrobial treatments, find carpet backings using ground glass instead of coal fly ash as filler, avoid vinyl backings.

Vinyl

Phthalate plasticizers, heavy metal stabilizers (organotins), halogenated flame retardants, contaminants such as arsenic in recycled content, VOCs in finishes

Cancer, developmental problems and birth defects, reproductive disruptor, decrease fertility, kidney damage, bone loss

Not preferable, if necessary buy vinyl that has been reformulated to be free of hazardous phthalate plasticizers

 

Flooring Adhesives

When choosing healthier flooring, the installation method and associated adhesives need to be considered as well as the flooring material. While flooring itself can contain many hazardous chemicals, many flooring types also require adhesives that have associated health risks. 

 

Type of Adhesive​

Chemicals of  Concerns

Health Concerns

Used with​

Acrylic/Latex (water based)

Phthalates (still remain in some; most use healthier benzoate plasticizers)

Reproductive,  developmental effects, respiratory problems

Carpet, vinyl, engineered wood

Epoxy 

Bisphenol A (BPA), nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)

PBT, cancer, endocrine and reproductive disruptor, respiratory irritation, gene mutation

Linoleum, vinyl 

Polyurethane

Isocyanates, organotin, petroleum distillates, dibutyltin

PBT, cancer, birth defects, asthma trigger

Vinyl 

Mortars, Grouts, Cementitious Systems

Silica

Developmental and reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruptor

Ceramic tile

Ceramic

Antimicrobials, heavy metal contaminants  in imported tiles

PBT, bacterial  resistance, endocrine disruption

Buy U.S.-made products, buy unglazed tiles, avoid antimicrobials.

Silicone

Cyclosiloxanes, organotin catalysts, VOCs, dibutyltin dilaurate

PBT, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruptor, infertility

Laminate, linoleum, vinyl, engineered wood, ceramic tile, carpet

Flooring that can be installed through mechanical means such as staples, nails, or tongue and groove mechanisms are preferred to flooring requiring adhesives. If choosing carpet, a healthier option is “peel-and-stick” adhesives already attached to the carpet backing, similar to double-sided tape, which have relatively low VOC off-gassing.

 

Healthier Flooring

Look for these product labels:

 

 

 

 

 

Avoid

Good

Better

Best

Vinyl flooring

 

Flooring containing recycled content

 

PFAS-based stain and oil repellents (water- and stain- repellency) 

 

Flooring advertised as anti-microbial

Carpeting and rubber tile that are certified to be free of the most hazardous chemicals

PVC resilient flooring

 

Low-VOC certified and pre-finished engineered wood and laminate

 

Site-finished hardwood flooring with low-VOC stains or finishes

 

Pre-finished cork flooring

Pre-finished wood flooring

 

Linoleum

 

Concrete flooring (without densifiers containing PFAS)

 

US made ceramic tile 

Other flooring recommendations

  • If vinyl flooring  is the only option cost-wise, avoid vinyl products that use recycled content and ask for the phthalate-free options.
  • Aim to install “floating” flooring, which does not require use of adhesives. Floating flooring is readily available for laminate, vinyl, and engineered wood flooring and often is cost comparable.
  • When adhesives are necessary, choose products that have a no-added formaldehyde (NAF) certification. If this is not possible, look for other certifications such as ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) or no-added urea formaldehyde (NAUF). These products have passed the California Air Resources Board standards and are certified by an approved third-party certifier. Also look for adhesives that are labeled “No VOC” or “Low VOC”; generally these will be water-based solutions.
  • Laminate flooring and engineered wood also can contain formaldehyde. Similar to adhesives, look for products that have ULEF or NAF certifications.
  • When given the option between pre-finished and unfinished hardwood or engineered wood, it is best to go with pre-finished so that off-gassing will occur at the factory and not in your home.

Recycled Flooring

While recycled content may sound like a positive sustainability measure, recycled content in building products is risky from a health perspective.  When using recycled content, manufacturers can introduce toxic legacy chemicals from older products. This problem is especially persistent in recycled vinyl, where legacy substances used in PVC products, such as lead, cadmium, and phthalates, can show up in new flooring manufactured from recycled vinyl. The Ecology Center measured heavy metals in recycled content vinyl flooring, with results showing some floors contained as much as 1 percent lead and 2 percent cadmium, a very high amount of lead that would be the equivalent of one hundred times the allowed amount in toys.