Monday, March 30, 2015

Homeowners try to assess formaldehyde risks in floors

Laminate wood flooring may look nice, but some brands
release formaldehyde fumes into the air, experts say.
Installing a new wood floor is usually about aesthetics: brown or black? Glossy or matte?

Now, some Americans and businesses are grappling with another feature: formaldehyde.

Uneasy consumers have flooded state and federal safety agencies with inquiries about Lumber Liquidators, the discount flooring retailer accused in a “60 Minutes” episode of selling laminate wood with high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Should they rip it out? Leave it in? And what are the dangers to adults, children or even pets?

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York has opened an inquiry into whether the company violated safety standards. Safety officials in California are also likely to investigate.

But federal regulators, armed with murky rules or none at all, have scrambled to respond, leaving consumers largely responsible for assessing the risk.

Formaldehyde exposure can cause immediate health problems like respiratory and sinus effects, but the effects of long-term exposure remain unclear.

Regulators, at least for now, are advocating a tempered approach.

“We are not encouraging people to rip out their flooring right now,” said Lynn Baker, an air pollution specialist with the California Air Resources Board, which enforces the state formaldehyde rules that Lumber Liquidators is accused of breaking.

Commercial customers could also be affected, although Lumber Liquidators estimates that commercial sales make up less than 10 percent of the market for laminate flooring, a cheaper alternative to hardwood. Homeowners account for the bulk of its sales.

Lumber Liquidators disputes the “60 Minutes” report and says its flooring is safe. The company also said it was considering offering air testing services to reassure concerned consumers.

Installers, too, find themselves on the front lines after the report.

No federal rules for airborne chemicals in the home

While federal rules exist for workers, no federal rules protect consumers from formaldehyde or most other airborne chemicals in their homes.

And while research exists on formaldehyde’s health effects, experts have difficulty correlating levels of exposure with cancer risk since so many factors can affect the development of the disease.

“Any exposure to a carcinogen can increase your risk of cancer,” said Marilyn Howarth, a toxicologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Mr. Baker, with the California agency, said consumers should ask two questions: How long has the flooring been installed, and have they been feeling sick?

“If the flooring has been installed more than a couple of years ago, most of it has probably already off-gassed,” he said, meaning that the chemical would probably have been released.

“If it was just installed last week, that’s a different story — you definitely want to ventilate the home.”

The floorboard controversy bears a resemblance to the cases of Chinese-made drywall that released sulfur gases into thousands of homes built after the 2005 hurricane season, which resulted in metal corrosion and health complaints.

But while the drywall gases were expected to be released for decades, formaldehyde emissions in flooring may not last as long.

Most new floors emit small levels of formaldehyde. But it also seeps out of adhesives used to bind furniture and other household items, affecting the quality of the air residents breathe.

To combat its harmful effects, governments around the world have limited the use of formaldehyde in household products, particularly those made of wood.

In Europe, chemical emissions from composite wood products are tightly regulated, and Japanese regulators put the onus on home builders to limit formaldehyde levels over all within houses they construct.

The United States, however, trails when it comes to such regulations. California enacted rules to cap emissions from composite wood products sold in the state.

As far back as 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was considering adopting California’s limits nationwide, and it issued a proposed rule in 2013.

But after many delays at the request of the wood products industry, the E.P.A. has yet to complete its rule. The E.P.A. said it had no plan to investigate Lumber Liquidators, citing the lack of a finished rule.

Agency proposes ventilation and air testing

The agency says it is trying to give consumers “actionable guidance” when it comes to formaldehyde from composite woods, according to Bob Axelrad, a policy adviser in the office of air and radiation.

That includes proper ventilation, when possible, and using reliable air testing methods.

David Krause, an environmental consultant at the consulting firm Geosyntec and the former state toxicologist of Florida, said ventilation helped but was not always a solution: Humidity, for example, can intensify the problem.

Testing indoor air quality is also not a simple proposition — mainly because federal standards are geared toward workplaces, not homes. There are no definitive testing levels, and people react in different ways to the chemical.

“We really don’t have anything that is enforceable,” Dr. Krause said.

Still, based on current knowledge of the Lumber Liquidators’ product, he added: “This is not a ‘Your hair’s on fire’ emergency.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission may take a lead role in investigating Lumber Liquidators. The commission can push for a recall if it can prove direct harm to human health.

But that would involve a long regulatory inquiry. Several consumers have begun pursuing a different path: suing the company.

Source: New York Times; This article has been edited for length.

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