Lillian Coney is frustrated. The Haymarket, Virginia, retiree needs to replace the carpet in her main bedroom. But over the years her husband, Donald, has complained that his allergies kick up when he leaves his carpeted office and settles into the living room, with its hardwood floors. Unsure what’s triggering his respiratory issues, Coney doesn’t want to introduce more chemicals into the house that would exacerbate his condition.
After hours of research on healthy homes and “green” materials, Coney found general information but nothing specific to manufacturers.
“Should I use carpet or wood? What types? And what about the underpadding? It’s almost impossible to find what’s in specific flooring products,” she says. “When there is no mention of chemicals in flooring, does that mean there are none or the company doesn’t have to report them? We have to live with whatever we install for a long time, and I don’t want to make the wrong decision.”
Coney contacted The Washington Post, and I was tasked with finding the best flooring for allergy sufferers and how consumers can really know what’s in the materials being used. After considerable digging and speaking with experts, the answer is … there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Easy-to-clean tile and stone are typically the go-to choices, because neither trap dust mites, pollen, dander and other airborne particles that aggravate allergies. Still, not everyone likes the feel, or they worry about falling on a hard surface. Hardwood is generally somewhat better than carpet in terms of allergies. But hardwood flooring can release harmful chemicals into the air, says Jonathan Bernstein, an allergist-immunologist and professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
“Between the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds [VOCs] such as formaldehyde from the wood, as well as varnishes and sealants, you can experience the same problems with hardwood flooring as with carpet,” he says.
These emissions can cause congestion, increased mucus, coughing, wheezing and other symptoms like those plaguing Donald Coney. Experts disagree about how long VOC emissions take to dissipate. Some say most chemicals leach out of a product within 14 days; others believe it can take five to 10 years, if not longer.
“Still, the flooring may not be the problem. It could be mold, poor ventilation, cleaning products, furniture or other irritants,” Bernstein adds.
Unfortunately, there is no one-stop shop to pinpoint the cause, say Jen and Rusty Stout, authors of the upcoming book “Healthier Homes: A Blueprint for Creating a Toxin-Free Living Environment.” Though the Austin-based couple specialize in building chemical-free custom homes, it has taken them years to develop a protocol for a healthy home, and, even now, finding flooring components can be a challenge.
“Likely you won’t get answers at your local home-improvement store and have to contact the manufacturer for a list of ingredients in your chosen product,” Rusty Stout says. Some companies are more transparent than others.
How can we buy flooring with confidence? Here are some suggestions.
Know your wood
Hardwood flooring is sold in three versions: real, engineered and laminate. Real wood is 100% solid wood. Engineered features a thin veneer layer of solid wood adhered on top of layers of plywood or high-density particleboard. Laminate flooring is topped with a highly realistic image layer that mimics wood planks. Typically, its base is particleboard — basically sawdust mixed with glue.
Engineered and laminate are the two of most concern in terms of allergies, says Rachel Rothman, chief technologist at the Good Housekeeping Institute. “There could be additives like formaldehyde or irritating glues used to bond the fiberboard and the plywood.”
The species of wood also matters. Some softwoods, such as cedar and pine, are full of natural terpenes that may emit an odor, Jen Stout says. Hickory or walnut may be better choices for those with a sensitive nose. Ideally, you’ll want to find a solid wood with nontoxic stain, sealer and adhesive.
Carpet has chemicals, too
Although many people love the feel of carpet, it harbors numerous chemicals in the binders, backing, pad and adhesive. Steer clear of stain-resistant treatments because they contain potentially irritating chemicals. Healthy-home experts favor 100% wool carpet because it is all natural and fire retardant.
Lexie Sachs, textiles director at the Good Housekeeping Institute, says a rule of thumb is to go for a tighter, lower pile construction vs. shag, where allergens have room to hide. “With carpet, you’re more likely to encounter issues with the padding and adhesives,” Sachs says. “Use padding with low or no VOCs, such as natural latex foam rubber or 100 percent pure wool.”
Look for certification
Rothman and Sachs are proponents of reliable third-party verification that a flooring has gone through a rigorous testing process to determine its composition and chemical emissions, if any. Typically, these “certification” labels can be found on store shelves, product displays or information sheets.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) operates the “asthma & allergy friendly” certification program in collaboration with Allergy Standards Limited, an international scientific body. The program tests wood, not carpet, and takes into account materials and chemicals used in manufacturing. Tests measure VOCs emitted at 24 and 48 hours, then after 14 days to make sure they remain low. If the flooring is installed with adhesive, that is also included in the test. Go to aafa.org and click on the Certified Products tab to find certified flooring options.
UL (Underwriters Laboratories) awards Greenguard Gold certification. Manufacturers whose products pass testing are certified to be lower emitting than noncertified products. Go to spot.ul.com to see UL’s searchable database of more than 130,000 low-emitting products, or check out UL Product iQ online (productiq.ulprospector.com/en) for free access to information on UL-certified products, components and materials.
Be your own CSI
Ask to see the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for any flooring you are considering. Under federal law, manufacturers must list the chemicals and hazardous ingredients in their products. Make note of those with low or no VOCs and the fewest chemicals. You may be able to find the MSDS on a company’s website.
Another option from the Stouts: Get a sample of your preferred wood floor or carpet to take home. Put it on the nightstand next to your bed, and see how you and your bedmate react. Or, if the sample is small enough, place it in a sealed jar in direct sunlight for a few days. Then open the jar and take a sniff. If it reeks, there is a high probability that it could cause issues.
Find the right expert
Coney is looking for a company to perform a healthy-home audit or help her identify the chemicals in specific flooring lines. Rothman suggests she contact a local HVAC company or local energy provider, because some offer indoor air-quality audits. Another option is the American Council for Accredited Certification. The association certifies individuals in mold inspection, indoor air quality and indoor environmental issues, such as chemicals, mold and microbial contamination. Its website, acac.org, lets you search your area by Zip code.
Manufacturers are stepping up
Determining the “greenest” flooring option for your home may be harder than pinning gelatin to the wall, but there’s reason for optimism. “In the last decade, brands have been on alert for additives and chemicals and have made a concerted effort to lower or eliminate formaldehyde and other chemicals,” Rothman says. “Consumers have more alternatives and choices, because regulators and customers insist on it.”