Recent claims that some Lumber Liquidators’ flooring contains high amounts of formaldehyde could have ripple effects in the home building industry for years, industry experts say.

As CBS’s "60 Minutes" reported earlier this week, independent tests of the retail giant’s flooring found levels of the cancer-causing chemical to be off the charts, some close to 20 times above what’s allowed, based on California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards.

Lumber Liquidators insists that the flooring is safe and has questioned the approach the network took to test the formaldehyde levels.

Whether or not the charges are true, the media coverage has set off consumer worries about indoor air quality and the health of homes--some homeowners are ripping out their Lumber Liquidators flooring, stopping contractors in mid-project, or seeking to have it tested.

Even before the Lumber Liquidators issue came to light, healthy housing was top of mind with home buyers: Studies show that many will pay more for a home that promotes their comfort and well-being. It’s also an excellent selling point for new home builders, because buyers consider them healthier than existing homes.

“This story is a good cautionary tale,” says Tom Lent, policy director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Healthy Building Network. The situation spotlights the pitfalls of specing products that contain hazardous chemicals, which can emit at dangerous levels if corners are cut, he says. He points out that there are non-hazardous methods to manufacture flooring and similar products like cabinets.

“The only truly reliable way to insure avoidance of unsafe emissions is to avoid putting the hazardous chemicals in the product in the first place,” he says. “Formaldehyde-free binders don’t require careful process controls and constant emission testing. Don’t put the formaldehyde in and you won’t have to worry about it coming back out.”

This hardwood flooring from Shaw meets the stringent standards of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
This hardwood flooring from Shaw meets the stringent standards of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

In addition, he says, this case shows that it is easier to reliably regulate local production for safety than international production. “CARB has attempted to audit imports but it would take a huge expenditure to do a thorough job of checking and testing all shipments,” he adds.

Builders looking to reassure customers can seek out products with third-party certification of their health effects, says Jay Bolus, president of certification services at Virginia-based MBDC, a consulting firm that provides technical expertise to help companies develop sustainable solutions in a variety of areas including material health. “Builders and consumers are becoming more skeptical when a manufacturer says ‘Trust me about this product,’” he says.

Often, these types of products cost no more than non-certified versions, Bolus says, because the certification process helps to streamline manufacturing and sourcing. “I don’t think builders have to worry about if this is going to drive up the costs of a project so much that they can’t do it,” he says.

Now that indoor air quality is in the national spotlight, he is hopeful that the market for healthy products will continue to grow. “This is an interesting moment for building products, I wonder if this is the tip of the iceberg that will soon come to a lot of other products,” says Bolus.

It may seem nearly impossible for home builders to find out what’s in the products they use and where they come from, but there are groups and programs that can help.

--The Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard guides designers and manufacturers through a continual improvement process that looks at a product through five quality categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. Product assessments are performed by a qualified independent organization trained by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Every two years, manufacturers must demonstrate good faith efforts to improve their products in order to have their products recertified.

“Cradle to Cradle really works to get an understanding of everything that goes into a product going down the supply chain to find out what’s involved all the way to the extraction of raw materials,” Bolus says. “It really does a very deep dive into the supply chain.”

The Pharos online system rates building products based on a variety of criteria, including health.
The Pharos online system rates building products based on a variety of criteria, including health.

--Pharos is an online system that rates building products on a scale of 1 to 10, based on 16 key attributes that fall within three sections: Environment and Resource, Health and Pollution, and Social and Community. These include factors like embodied energy, indoor air quality, water usage, toxic materials, solid waste, global warming, and even corporate commitment to sustainability. The program displays a product’s green strengths and weaknesses, making pro-versus-con selections much easier.

A Pharos rating also includes a “data confidence score” that weighs the quality of information considered in reaching a rating, such as the credibility of manufacturer’s data or third-party product certification, for example.

--Home Innovation Research Labs NGBS Green Certified Products program requires manufacturers to provide appropriate third-party evidence that their products meet the criteria for recognition in buildings seeking NGBS Green Home Certification, including indoor air quality standards.

--The EPA’s Indoor airPLUS program helps builders meet growing consumer preference for homes with improved indoor air quality. Indoor airPLUS builds on Energy Star requirements for new homes and provides additional construction specifications to provide comprehensive indoor air quality protections in new homes.

Construction specifications include the selection and installation of moisture control systems; heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems; combustion-venting systems; radon resistant construction; and low-emitting building materials. (Click here for a related case study.)