CBS’s 60 Minutes set off a firestorm of controversy in their March 1st telecast. Investigators found that Lumber Liquidators has been selling laminate flooring made in China, which contains high levels of formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen (cancer causing substance), frequently found in adhesives used to manufacture flooring, cabinets, insulation and other “pressed wood” products. Breathing elevated levels indoors can cause adverse health effects. While some individuals may have manageable reactions, children, senior adults and pregnant women are most at risk. Symptoms include watery eyes, burning nose and throat, coughing, wheezing, nausea and skin irritation. More information on formaldehyde risk can be found at the Center for Diseases and the EPA.
The 60 Minutes segment reported that more than 150 boxes of laminate flooring was sent to three certified labs for a series of tests. Every sample of Chinese-made laminate flooring from Lumber Liquidators failed to meet California formaldehyde emissions standards. Many failed by a large margin. Some of the samples tested contained close to 20 times the amount of formaldehyde allowed by law. (Federal legislation signed into law on July 7, 2010, mirrors the California standard.) Problem is, this material has been installed in hundreds of thousands of homes around the country.
Lumber Liquidators stock has been hammered and they face consumer class-action suits filed in California and Massachusetts accusing them of harming customers who bought products laden with formaldehyde. Lozeau Drury LLP an environmental law firm behind the California case says, “if you've purchased laminate flooring from Lumber Liquidators in the past 4 years, you may have been exposed to high levels of formaldehyde”.
But many experts fear toxic flooring may not be limited to just Lumber Liquidators. Using hidden cameras, the 60 Minutes segment shows the manager of a Chinese manufacturing plant admitting to falsely labeling flooring as compliant with strict formaldehyde emissions standards, even though he knew the material did not. There is concern that this may be a habitual pattern.
Occupants in newer homes may be at greater risk for unhealthy concentrations. That’s because the attention to energy savings over the last 40 years has produced exceptionally airtight houses. Plus, with central heating and air, hardly anyone opens windows anymore. While saving energy is good, airtight homes are usually very poorly ventilated. Without fresh air, pollutants are trapped inside the home where they quickly accumulate to unsafe levels.
Are there things an agent can do to protect your client while protecting yourself?
Here are some tips that may help.
- It may be useful to know that studies have shown chemical emissions generally decrease as a material ages. Consequently, if a floor is 5-10 years old, there is less concern over formaldehyde emissions compared to newer material.
- Full disclosure is always the best policy. So if you suspect a problem, inform your client. Keep in mind that not all laminate flooring is defective and/or unhealthy. But, it is exceptionally wise to ask questions about products manufactured and imported from China.
- If you are the buyer's agent and you notice laminate flooring, ask the listing agent if the seller can provide documentation from the manufacturer. This information might include certificates of compliance or labels that demonstrate the material meets formaldehyde emission standards. Unfortunately, this isn’t foolproof because we now know that flooring products may have been falsely labeled.
Three such endorsements are:
The Healthy Building Network – www.healthybuilding.net
GreenGuard – www.greenguard.org
California Air Resources Board – www.arb.ca.gov
Specifically, Carb 2 reflects compliance with California’s formaldehyde emission standards (i.e., CARB Phase 2)
- If you are the listing agent, and your seller has laminate flooring, be proactive and ask them where they bought it. Seek documentation and look for the same information as discussed above. It's better to know this than to get ambushed later in the negotiation process.
- If you are the listing agent and your client is going to be installing laminate flooring to improve marketability, explain the concern about formaldehyde emissions and how selecting the wrong material could adversely affect the sale of their property. Provide the same recommendations described above about reviewing documentation before purchasing flooring. A sensible course is to look for products that are “formaldehyde free”. Several manufacturers have substituted safer alternatives to formaldehyde such as glue made from soy. This can then become a benefit that might help sell the home quicker.
- Best practice to protect all parties is to conduct air quality testing. Testing for formaldehyde takes just a few hours and typically costs less than $300. Solving the mystery of what the client’s family will be breathing can reduce stress and worry for everyone involved. Even when test results show elevated levels of formaldehyde, it doesn’t necessarily mean the floor must be replaced. There are several strategies to handle the problem with minimal intrusion.
For more information contact:
Danny Gough Energy Solutions, Inc.
(336) 463-2005 Danny@energysolutionsnc.com