Buyer Beware: Chemicals of Concern Found in Flooring & Wallcoverings

Tom Lent | October 19, 2010 | Materials

Heavy metals and other toxic chemicals are still widespread in some types of interior finishes according to a major study of home improvement products released today. Researchers from tested a wide range of national and local brand flooring and wallpaper products and discovered lead, phthalates, brominated flame retardants and a range of other chemicals linked with human health problems ranging from asthma and liver damage to reproductive problems, birth defects and autism.

The nonprofit Ecology Center of Ann Arbor Michigan initiated the HealthyStuff project in 2009 to bring attention to toxic chemical content in toys and now is turning its attention to home improvement products. staff tested over 100 product brands, covering about 2300 wall covering products and another 1000 flooring products, including bamboo, cork, carpet cushion, sheet, tile, and wood floorings. Researchers used an XRF device that uses X-ray fluorescence to detect heavy metals and other elements, including lead, bromine, chlorine, cadmium, arsenic, tin and mercury. In a separate lab process they also tested a much smaller sample of four vinyl flooring products for phthalates.  All test results are published on the website searchable by product type or brand.

Phthalates were present in all of the vinyl flooring samples at levels ranging from less than 1% up to almost 13% of weight. Study results revealed mixtures of four different phthalates (DEHP, BBP, DnOP and DINP) all of which were recently banned in children's toys and are ranked by the EPA as significant chemicals of concern. A significant body of science has shown associations between phthalates in building materials, levels in humans and health impacts ranging from asthma to birth defects.

Some of the other hazardous elements found included lead - detected in much of the ceramic tile tested and in much smaller, but still significant, percentage of the vinyl flooring and vinyl wallcovering (about 2% of each). Tin indicated likely presence of organotin stabilizers in two thirds of the PVC flooring. Some organotins are endocrine disruptors which can affect development.

It should be noted that the XRF testing used in this study only indicates the presence of tin and does not discriminate which type of tin compound it is a part of. The XRF assessment also only indicates presence of the elements and does not indicate how bioavailable the compound it is in may be; for example, it does not indicate if the lead is well bound into the tile glazes or is likely to leach or flake out.

The news wasn't all dismal. Linoleum, cork, bamboo and hardwood all tested free of lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous metals and at only very low trace levels of some of the other chemicals (very minute levels of arsenic or bromine were found in a majority of all flooring materials samples other than tile). Note that some cork flooring uses PVC which may contain phthalates.  One cork floor sample in the HealthyStuff study tested at 17% chlorine likely reflecting PVC and phthalate content but has not yet been tested for specific phthalates.

So what conclusions can be drawn from this report, particularly if you don't happen to own an XRF gun (they go for about $15K these days) and can't test every product you consider specifying? The most significant problem area revealed by this study is in products made from vinyl (PVC). Over one half of the vinyl wallpapers contained one or more hazardous elements at significant levels (>40ppm) and significant quantities of lead, cadmium, tin and antimony were found in a large number of vinyl floorings. Ceramic tile also clearly needs to be studied to understand the potential lead problem this study uncovered. In the meantime, demand disclosure of all contents from manufacturers, including the trace elements and avoid the vinyl.