James Vallette | July 09, 2015
Parents should wash their toddlers’ hands, and regularly mop vinyl floors, especially if children crawl on the floors, warns the Consumers Union in the August 2015 issue of Consumer Reports. (1)
The Consumers Union is the advocacy arm of the venerable Consumers Reports magazine. It has “long raised concerns about phthalates,” the article notes. Over twenty percent of the composition of some vinyl sheet flooring is phthalate plasticizer. Public health authorities have determined that many phthalates are detrimental to developmental health. Some phthalates are carcinogens.
In response to these concerns, the world’s largest flooring companies – Mohawk and Tarkett – along with leading retailers Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards, this year have announced that they are phasing-out the intentional use of phthalate plasticizers in vinyl flooring by the end of this year. (2)
The Consumers Union tested 17 vinyl floors and found small amounts of phthalates on the surface layers – enough however to warrant action by parents. “(A)lthough phthalate levels are very low, we recommend that parents of toddlers wet-mop often and wash those little hands after they’ve been crawling on a vinyl floor,” it reports.
Frequent cleaning can remove dust particles, but the best prevention is to keep phthalates out of building materials in the first place. Phthalates, as semi-volatile organic compounds, can migrate from PVC into the air as a gas, but more often attach to dust particles which in turn can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed into the body through skin contact. Phthalate migration from vinyl floors was an established fact in 1998.(3) In the ensuing years, evidence of its migration from consumer products into building interiors grew.(4)
The rise and fall of phthalates in building materials is taking a familiar course. As with substances like lead in paint and asbestos in insulation, consumers are usually the last people (after manufacturers, and then, independent scientists) to learn about the presence of toxic substances in the materials that surround them. Once consumers find out, change is inevitable.
In researching the Healthy Building Network report, Phthalate-free Plasticizers in PVC, my colleague Sarah Lott came to realize that there were plenty of alternatives in commerce already, and there was no reason for flooring companies to carry on with business as usual. Change was possible, and now, it is reality. The world’s biggest retailers and flooring manufacturers are getting out of phthalates.
We look to the rest of the flooring industry to get rid of phthalates. While the Consumers Union says parents should wipe the floors and their children's hands, it should not be up to parents to clean up the chemical industry's mess.
(1) “Can Your Floor Make You Sick?,” Consumer Reports, August 2015, p. 37.
(2) See our accompanying HBN newsletter, “The End is Near For Phthalate Plasticizers,” for further details.
(3) Velsicol Corporation noted phthalate migration from vinyl flooring in a 1998 conference report. It said “emissions from vinyl flooring during processing and post-production are of concern,” and that these plasticizers remain volatile during use.
(4) For example:
In 2003, Rudel et al 2003 found 52 endocrine disrupting chemicals in indoor air and 66 in dust across 120 homes in Cape Cod. Phthalates were among the most abundant compounds in both air and dust with diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP) found in indoor air and diethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP) and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP) in dust. (Rudel, Ruthann A, David E Camann, John D Spengler, Leo R Korn, and Julia G Brody. “Phthalates, Alkylphenols, Pesticides, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers, and other Endocrine-Disrupting Compounds in Indoor Air and Dust.” Environmental Science & Technology 27, no 20 (2003) 4543-4553.)
In 2005, Bornehag et al found BBP and DEHP concentrations in dust were associated with amounts of PVC flooring and wall materials in their study of 390 homes. (Bornehag, CG, J Sundell, CJ Weschler, T Sigsgaard, B Lundgren, M Hasselgren, L Hägerhed-Engman, “The association between asthma and allergic symptoms in children and phthalates in house dust: a nested case-control study,” Environmental Health Perspectives 112, no. 14 (2004):1393-1397.)
In 2014, Blanchard et al tested indoor air and dust in 30 French homes, again finding that SVOCs are ubiquitous contaminants in the indoor environment with 40 and 34 chemicals detected in indoor dust and air respectively. Again phthalates had the highest concentrations of in both air and dust, including DEHP and DINP, both used in vinyl flooring. (Blanchard, Olivier, Philippe Blorennec, Fabien Mercier, Nathalie Bonvallot, Cécile Chevrier, Olivier Ramalho, Corinne Mandin, and Barbara Le Bot. “Semivolatile Organic Compounds in Indoor Air and Settled Dust in 30 French Dwellings.” Environmental Science & Technology 48, no 7 (2014) 3959-3969.)
And in a study published this year, Dodson et al found 60 chemicals were detected in household dust and indoor air samples from 49 homes. Phthalates (bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, benzyl butyl phthalate, di-n-butyl phthalate) along with two flame retardants (PBDE 99, PBDE 47) had the highest concentrations in household dust in relation to the other chemicals. (Dodson, Robin E, David E Camann, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Julia G Brody, and Ruthma A Rudel. “Semivolatile Organic Compounds in Homes: Strategies for Efficient and Systematic Exposure Measurement Based on Empirical and Theoretical Factors.” Environmental Science & Technology 49, (2015) 113-122.)