Rapid change sweeps flooring industry

James Vallette | November 13, 2015 | Materials

Resilient floors and carpets made today are quite different than those made just a few years ago. On Monday morning, I will join flooring experts from manufacturing firms, architecture and design firms, and hospitals, to discuss these changes at the Healthcare Design Conference in Washington, D.C. (1)

From recycled content to plasticizers to coatings, transformation is the norm in resilient floors and carpets. Here’s a synopsis of the movement underfoot:

Recycled Content. The big trend here is the move to restrict the use of post-consumer polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in flooring, due to supply chain concerns.  Our April 2015 report, supported by testing by the Ecology Center, found that old PVC sheathing from wire and cable scrap, has made its way into floors, and with it, a lot of toxic heavy metals like lead.(2) Tarkett, Interface, Mohawk, and Armstrong are among the industry leaders that have restricted post-consumer scrap.  Home improvement retailers have been slow to respond, although that may change soon.

Meanwhile, carpet companies (including Interface and Mohawk) continue to use a fly ash – in some cases, nearly 40% of the carpets’ weight is fly ash (3). This is a missed opportunity to optimize healthy recycled feedstocks, as post-consumer glass is currently recycled at a paltry 30% rate, and offers a much cleaner alternative ready to replace mercury-laded fly ash as a recycled material in carpet. (4)

Plasticizers. Home Depot rocked the PVC flooring industry in April 2015, when it announced that it would require its suppliers to eliminate the use of toxic phthalate plasticizers by the end of this year. Other retailers, including Lowe’s and Menards, quickly fell in line. (5) Almost every major commercial flooring manufacturer has also phased out phthalates, or will by the end of this year. As a recent Floor Daily article notes, “At this point it’s inevitable that all producers will convert from ortho-phthalates.” (6)

Antimicrobials. Tandus Centiva (owned by Tarkett) remains the only manufacturer that does not apply antimicrobials to its carpet surfaces.  That will likely change thanks to Kaiser Permanente’s leadership: last month, the healthcare giant announced that it would no longer allow antimicrobials on its interior surfaces, including floors. (7)

Stain Repellants. Interface is the only carpet manufacturer that does not use perflouorocarbon (PFC) stain repellants on its face fibers. It completed this transition in 2014. (8). This too may change as PFCs are in the sights of environmental health scientists.  Last May, over 200 scientists said consumers should “whenever possible, avoid products containing, or manufactured using” short-chain PFCs which are “as environmentally persistent as long-chain substances” like PFOS and PFOA which the carpet industry has phased out. (9)

Nanocoatings. Flooring coatings increasingly contain nanoparticles to enhance their scrubbability. Among the recent changes to the flooring sector, this may be the least recognized – and most significant.  A federal interagency task force (10) is studying the availability of, and potential exposures to, nanoparticles on the surfaces of building products that contain them. The task force’s work is ongoing, but its preliminary reports, which I obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, raise some degree of alarm. Federal studies have found that scouring floors can release nanoparticles into the air and water, and leave nanoparticles on flooring surfaces.

The stakes are high: the health effects of these nanoparticles are poorly understood. Some tiny particles, like multiwall carbon nanotubes used in concrete, exhibit asbestos-like qualities. In a previously unreleased study produced last year by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, scientists note, “Flooring coatings are of particular concern for young children who spend more time on the floor and, therefore, have greater opportunities for exposure.  Despite these potential risks, little information is available on the in-service release, surface accumulation, transport, and exposure to nanoparticles from flooring coatings and interior paints.” (11)

Concerns about nanoparticles can extend to other potentially-toxic content in carpets and resilient floors:  the youngest among us spend their days close to the floor, and are the most vulnerable to the health effects of toxic materials. Recent transformations in flooring composition have generally been positive – the demise of phthalates is a huge health benefit especially for young children – but new formulations like nanocoatings ought to be studied before they enter public spaces, not after.

I look forward to discussing these and other challenges on Monday at the Healthcare Design conference.


(1) The American Academy of Healthcare Interior Designers (AAHID) workshop at the Healthcare Design conference will take place Monday, November 16, at 9:45 a.m. Other panelists include Laura Morris of Array Architects, Jennifer Fink of Lehigh Valley Health Network, Teri Lura Bennett of Johns Hopkins Health System Facilities and Planning, George Bandy, Jr., of Interface, and Phil Carey of Spartan Surfaces. http://www.healthcaredesignmagazine.com/conference/association-programs-meetings

(2) Jim Vallette, Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products, July 2015, https://healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/post-consumer-polyvinyl-chloride-pvc-report.pdf

(3) Interface, Carpet Tile: GlasBac, Type 6 Nylon (Environmental Product Declaration), issued September 19, 2011, http://interfaceinc.scene7.com/is/content/InterfaceInc/Interface/Americas/WebsiteContentAssets/Documents/Technical/EPDBriefs/GlasBacNylon6/wc_epdglasbacnylon6april2015.pdf and Mohawk Group, Nylon Modular Carpet Tiles on EcoFlex NXT (Health Product Declaration), released January 19, 2015, http://www.mohawkgroup.com/sitefiles/pdfs/hpd/MG_EcoFlexNXT.pdf

(4) Jim Vallette, “Air Pollution Control Boosts Mercury Levels in Coal Ash,The Signal, March 1, 2013, https://healthybuilding.net/blog/392-air-pollution-control-boosts-mercury-levels-in-coal-ash and Jim Vallette, Post-Consumer Cullet In California, Healthy Building Network & Stopwaste, October 2015, https://healthybuilding.net/uploads/files/post-consumer-cullet-in-california.pdf

(5) Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, “Menards joins Home Depot and Lowes in eliminating toxic phthalates in flooring” (press release), July 9, 2015, http://saferchemicals.org/newsroom/menards-joins-home-depot-and-lowes-in-eliminating-toxic-phthalates-in-flooring/ and Jim Vallette, “The end is near for phthalate plasticizers,” Healthy Building News, July 9, 2015, https://www.healthybuilding.net/news/2015/07/09/the-end-is-near-for-phthalate-plasticizers

(6) Darius Helm,  “State of Sustainability 2015: Manufacturers adapt to market transformations,” Floor Daily, 2015, http://www.floordaily.net/FloorFocus/State_of_Sustainability_2015_Manufacturers_adapt_.aspx

(7) Darius Helm, “Carpet Reclamation Update: Demand for recycled fibers continues to fall,” Floor Daily, August/September 2015, http://www.floordaily.net/floorfocus/carpet_reclamation_update_demand_for_recycled_fib.aspx and Tom Lent, “Kaiser says no to antimicrobial surfaces in its facilities,” The Signal, November 4, 2015, https://healthybuilding.net/blog/442-kaiser-says-no-to-antimicrobial-surfaces-in-its-facilities

(8) Darius Helm, “State of Sustainability 2015: Manufacturers adapt to market transformations,” Floor Daily, 2015, http://www.floordaily.net/FloorFocus/State_of_Sustainability_2015_Manufacturers_adapt_.aspx

(9) Jim Vallette, “New health concerns about common additives to carpet fibers,” The Signal, July 8, 2015, https://healthybuilding.net/blog/438-new-health-concerns-about-common-additives-to-carpet-fibers

(10) The Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Institute of Standard and Technology, and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

(11) U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Characterization of Airborne Nanoparticle Released from Consumer Products, prepared for Consumer Product Safety Commission, by Tinh Nguyen, Lipiin Sung, Joannie Chin, and Andrew Persily, August 2013, obtained by FOIA request.