Floored by toxic chemicals? You should be.

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06.03.2015

So you finally put that new floor in. What a fine looking addition to your home. The kids love sliding around on it. Too bad your flooring might make your family sick.

If it’s laminate, those simulated-wood floor tiles made of layered plastic, you might be breathing in formaldehyde, a common chemical irritant that triggers asthma and poses long term cancer risks.

In a case that’s gotten national attention, Lumber Liquidators was exposed for selling laminate floor tiles that average up to six times the levels of formaldehyde legally allowed to be sold in California. These toxic tiles were imported from China without ensuring compliance with that state’s health standard. Lawsuits and investigations are underway.

If it’s vinyl flooring, another synthetic plastic tile often mistaken for linoleum, your kids might be ingesting phthalates. These hormone-disrupting chemicals are shed into house dust and enter a toddler’s body through typical hand-to-mouth activity or skin contact. A growing body of evidence links phthalates to asthma, allergies, learning disabilities and reproductive harm. If you’re pregnant, be especially worried, says the best science.

new report I helped write found that nearly 60% of all vinyl floor tiles tested contained levels of phthalates that exceed the legal standard for those same chemicals in toys and childcare articles. But even though some phthalates are now banned in Europe, their use in vinyl flooring and other products remains perfectly legal in the United States.

Thankfully, some retailers are taking action on their own to do what’s right and safe for their customers, rather than waiting for government regulation.

The Home Depot plans to eliminate all phthalates added to vinyl flooring by the end of this year. They’re already 85% of the way there. I helped lead a team at the Mind the Store Campaign that worked with the company, the fifth largest retailer in the world, to identify safer alternatives and convince their suppliers to make the switch. 

Unfortunately, Lumber Liquidators has refused, so far, to make a similar commitment to end phthalates use in flooring. Big retailers and consumer brands remain on the front line of consumer discontent with product safety. That’s a symptom of our badly broken chemical safety system.

But, in other potentially good news, the U.S. Congress has finally begun to get serious about fixing the 40-year old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law that’s allowed thousands of dangerous or untested chemicals to remain on the market. In the absence of federal action on toxic chemicals, we’ve had to rely on leadership from companies like The Home Depot, from states like California and Maine, and from our trading partners such as the European Union.

Congress has a ways to go yet before they get chemical reform right. Our national coalition opposes the Senate bill as recently amended in Committee. It still includes an unprecedented take-away of state authority to restrict the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products, even in the absence of federal action.

Draft TSCA reform legislation under discussion in the U.S. House of Representatives takes a more promising approach, with minimal preemption of the states, although it needs more work before it’s ready to support.

Continued voter vigilance and consumer demand will be needed to drive the market toward safer flooring and other everyday products. Parents send a strong signal to Washington DC when they reward state legislators and companies who are leading the charge for safer chemicals. 

But we may have to drag the U.S. government into the 21st century on chemical safety before all stores can guarantee that the products you buy are safe for people and the planet.

When people vote for health and safety at the ballot box and in the marketplace, even a Congress unduly influenced by chemical industry lobbyists has to listen.