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Lumber Liquidators stops selling Chinese laminates

Reacts to concerns over levels of formaldehyde in laminate flooring

Published: May 08, 2015 12:30 PM

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The subject of formaldehyde emissions from laminate flooring has gotten a lot of attention lately. It began in early March, when the CBS news program, "60 Minutes," reported that retailer Lumber Liquidators was selling laminate flooring with formaldehyde emissions several times higher than California’s standards for flooring sold in that state. Lumber Liquidators has denied the accusations but nevertheless is pulling all Chinese-made laminate flooring from its inventory, pending its review. And the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is currently investigating the issue.

Why does this matter? Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound considered a carcinogen. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has spent years pushing for a national standard based on California’s, which sets the strictest limits of any state.

While Consumer Reports tests flooring, it hasn't tested the specific products mentioned in the "60 Minutes" report, and our flooring Ratings do not include laminates from Lumber Liquidators. But if you’re concerned, here’s what you need to know:

Where formaldehyde is used. The flooring in question is laminate, which is composed of a plastic image glued over layers of wood or plastic. The adhesives that bind the layers often emit formaldehyde. In addition to laminates, products that emit formaldehyde include engineered-wood flooring, furniture that uses medium-density fiberboard or permanent-press upholstery, urea-based varnishes, spray-foam insulation, and combustion sources such as gas stoves, wood-burning fireplaces, and cigarettes.

Minimizing your exposure. Formaldehyde emissions are highest when products are new and diminish over time. Noticeable health effects from formaldehyde exposure include nose and throat irritation, a burning sensation in the eyes, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. (Sufferers of asthma, bronchitis, and other conditions can be especially sensitive.) And long-term exposure is associated with cancer in humans. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) says that most laminate and engineered-wood flooring labeled as compliant with the state’s formaldehyde limits meets those standards.

Cautions on DIY testing. If a physician has advised that you might be sensitive to formaldehyde—or you’re concerned about the long-term threat—call in a professional to evaluate your home. CARB hosts a list of approved companies, nearly a dozen of which are U.S.-based; however, not all test private homes. And although you can buy home test kits and send results to a laboratory, the CPSC has not endorsed the accuracy of such products.

Before you buy. There are alternatives to flooring products known to contain formaldehyde including solid-hardwood, vinyl, linoleum, and tile floors. If you are shopping for laminate or engineered-wood flooring, ask about products made with resins certified as Ultra-Low Emission Formaldehyde, ULEF, or No Added Formaldehyde, NAF. (In California, such flooring or its packaging are required to be labeled as such.)

Other ways to minimize exposure. If you’ve purchased laminate or engineered-wood flooring and haven’t installed it yet, CARB suggests you leave it in the garage or beneath a covered carport to let it off-gas for a week to 10 days, presuming the flooring is CARB-compliant. If it isn’t compliant, it might need more time before residual odors dissipate or respiratory irritation is minimized.

Consumer Reports is concerned about the testing results of the Lumber Liquidators products discussed in the "60 Minutes" report, and will be conducting its own tests on formaldehyde emissions for some of the laminate, engineered-wood, and bamboo flooring in our flooring tests, which we plan to publish later this year. We also look forward to seeing the results of the CPSC’s investigation.

—Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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