By Dean Thompson
In recent years, some environmental groups have raised questions about plasticizers used in vinyl products and whether they are healthy and environmentally friendly.
Phthalate plasticizers are used in many vinyl products including flooring to provide flexibility and resiliency. They are found in a myriad of consumer products such as food packaging, water hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, adhesives, detergents, nail polish, hair spray and shampoo.
In healthcare, one of the country’s most regulated industries from a standpoint of product safety, phthalate plasticizers are used in critical care products such as medical tubing and blood bags. In homes and commercial spaces, products with phthalate plasticizers are used for flooring, wallcovering, furniture, roofing, and electrical wiring and cables.
An Ann Arbor, Mich.-based group called The Ecology Center recently looked at flooring and wallcovering and ingredients such as phthalate plasticizers used to make these products. The study only tested two vinyl flooring products for phthalate plasticizers, yet makes sweeping conclusions about their use in the resilient flooring industry.
Track record of safe use
It should be noted phthalate plasticizers are materials the industry has safely used for decades to give vinyl flooring its flexibility and resiliency. This chemical compound has the look and consistency of vegetable oil and has little or no smell.
However, The Ecology Center calls into question the safety of vinyl flooring and wallcovering, particularly when they are installed near children. It’s important to remember the Center’s limited tests simply identify the use of phthalates in two vinyl flooring products and do not indicate that there is a health risk.
In fact, The Ecology Center’s own disclaimer notes its “ratings do not provide a measure of health risk or chemical exposure associated with any individual product, or any individual element or related chemical.”
Patty Davis of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said in a Detroit Free Press article about The Ecology Center’s research, “To determine if there is a risk to children of exposure to a product, you have to do more science than just identify a product contains a chemical. The mere presence of a chemical in a product does not make [the] product a hazard. It is the exposure to particular levels of the chemical under particular conditions that makes the hazard.”
Phthalate plasticizers have been thoroughly evaluated by government and independent scientific organizations and are widely accepted for use in consumer, medical, interiors and architectural products.
The only industry where use of phthalate plasticizers has been impacted is the children’s toy industry, where it is assumed that children will chew or suck on the toy for extended periods of time. Congress passed a law in 2008 restricting phthalates in toys and other children’s products against the advice of the CPSC. “There was not a risk of injury to children,” Dr. Marilyn Wind, CPSC deputy associate director for health sciences said about the action.
National sustainability standard
Vinyl flooring products have a long history of safe use and the industry continues to make advancements that lower environmental impact and enhance sustainability and, in March, a new sustainability standard was released for resilient floor coverings, including vinyl flooring products.
ANSI/NSF 332 was developed to promote sustainability practices in the manufacture of resilient flooring and also bring more transparency and clarity to the sustainable process. The standard is now being used by manufacturers to certify the sustainable attributes of resilient flooring.
The standard was developed by NSF, the non-profit, non-governmental organization accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and is a third-party independent accreditation that specifiers and consumers can use to make informed purchasing decisions.
ANSI/NSF 332 is very comprehensive, covering the range of issues from product design and manufacturing to long term value, end of life management, corporate governance and innovation. Use of the standard will help resilient flooring manufacturers verify and communicate to customers the environmental and social aspects associated with the production of resilient floor coverings.
FloorScore certifies low VOCs
Many vinyl flooring products are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The major resilient flooring manufacturers in North America certify their products under the FloorScore program as proof of this.
FloorScore, developed by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) and administered by the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI), tests resilient flooring against the requirements of California Section 01350, a very stringent VOC emissions standard for building materials. Low-VOC emissions is one of the areas considered by the ANSI/NSF 332 sustainability standard, and flooring products certified under the FloorScore program qualify for this prerequisite.
FloorScore is accepted as an indicator of indoor air quality by all major environmental rating systems including LEED, Green Globes, Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), Green Guide for Health Care and EPA’s Tools for Schools. Look for FloorScore certifications on floor covering labels or go to rfci.com for a list of certified products.
Mills reducing environmental impacts
Manufacturers of resilient flooring are some of the most forward-thinking innovators in the floor covering industry, and they have invested significant resources to drive resilient flooring to new levels of sustainability.
Mills have recycled scrap flooring material for many years. More recently, many have developed retrieval programs to reclaim flooring from the field thus, keeping it out of our already crowded landfills—add this postconsumer material to the total recycled content of new products. Products with bio-based materials also are available. These draw from rapidly renewable sources and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.
Vinyl flooring is already a low-maintenance option for homes and commercial spaces, and producers are expanding their selections of no- polish, no-buff flooring products.
There is a wealth of low-VOC vinyl flooring selections on the market with Floor- Score certification, verifying compliance with the indoor air emissions criteria of California Section 1350. In addition, RFCI’s member companies have environmental programs in place to cut energy usage (including solar power and alternative fuel sources), conserve natural materials and reduce waste. Many manufacturing facilities have achieved ISO 14001 certification for Environmental Management System.
For more on resilient flooring and sustainability, visit rfci.com. For facts on vinyl products, go to vinylindesign.com.
Dean Thompson is president of the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI).