I did not watch the 60 Minutes segment Sunday regarding excess formaldehyde off-gassing from laminate flooring made in China and sold in the US by Lumber Liquidators. The first I heard of it was in our weekly conference call Tuesday where it was related that our Customer Service group was fielding an amazing number of phone calls from concerned homeowners wondering if they had contracted cancer from their floors. It was decided that a blog was appropriate and either Ed or I should write something. I won and went back, watched the segment, and read the various resulting news stories. These are my thoughts on the situation:
1) If you have this type of flooring you are no doubt suffering from anxiety and I really can’t blame you given the tone of the segment. It is easy to determine if you are being exposed to high levels of formaldehyde by calling SGS-Galson and obtaining a formaldehyde passive monitor. Since you will be looking for non-occupational levels of formaldehyde, I recommend using the Assay Technology 571 passive monitor. The badge with analysis will cost you $87/each. I recommend putting a badge in each area where the flooring has been installed, leaving it in place for 24 hours, and returning it to SGS-Galson for analysis. You will get your results in five business days from the time we get your samples back at the lab. These results will tell you if you have a problem.
2) You do not need to evacuate your home if you have this flooring. Unless you have a specific sensitivity to formaldehyde that could cause respiratory distress, we are talking about long –term health effects.
3) You may get positive formaldehyde readings from sources that have nothing to do with your floors. Any furniture or building materials that were made using formaldehyde could be off-gassing to some degree. This would include many carpets, paneling, and things made from plywood or particle board. Many cleaning products and disinfectants also contain formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is also a metabolic product from some organisms, trees for example. It is a fact that there is no such thing as zero exposure, only exposures at what is considered to be a safe level. Your results will need to be interpreted in terms of this safe level and the recommended safe levels vary according to source. The CDC recommends you take action to limit your exposures if the levels found exceed 1000 ppb (parts per billion), says you may experience some health effects if your levels exceed 100 ppb, and are generally exposed everyday to levels around 10 ppb. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) referenced in the story has limits between 50 and 150 ppb, depending on the material being manufactured. As in almost everything concerning chemical exposures, an internet search will easily turn up sources that dispute these levels and you should consider consulting an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) expert if you are concerned.
4) If you are running a company that out-sources manufacturing offshore, it is very important that you consider contracting with SGS to confirm that the manufacturing is being performed to your specifications. This segment is a poster child for this need, showing racks of flooring labelled “CARB 2 Compliant” just after the plant manager admitted they were not. Assuring that this situation could not exist is a core business for SGS.
The following are my thoughts on the segment. These are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. This is the first time I’ve felt the need to say this, caused by some of the weasels involved in this story (my first opinion).
1) The “short-selling” aspect of the story was glossed over in the segment but is really pretty significant. The stock price of lumber liquidators has doubled in the past year, making it susceptible to price manipulation. Short selling is the practice of promising to sell a quantity of stock on a certain date for a specified price. If the price on that date is less than what has been promised, the difference represents profits. As you can imagine, the stock price of Lumber Liquidators has tumbled since this story aired and the people funding the legal actions referenced in the story stand to make a lot of money. Is this a public health hazard or a pretty slick plan to drive the stock price down?
2) The testing done on the flooring needs to be better defined. Regulations such as CARB 2 specify limits on formaldehyde off-gassing at specific temperature and humidity parameters over a specific period of time. Were these parameters followed when the flooring was tested? For example, increasing the temperature of the testing chamber would increase the rate of off-gassing. I am not saying this was done, but the testing parameters need to be clearly stated.
3) The formaldehyde levels in the flooring may not directly correlate to levels found in homes. Installation of the flooring as well as the environmental conditions in the homes will play a large role in amount of off-gassing that takes place. The age of the flooring will also play a role and additional studies on these factors need to be done. As I stated above, this testing is fairly easy to perform.
4) A similar situation occurred around 10 years ago involving the temporary housing (trailers) distributed after Katrina. Elevated formaldehyde levels were found due to the particle board used in manufacture of the housing. Were there lessons learned from the studies performed on these trailers that can be applied to the current potential problem?
My basic opinion on this story is that I’m not sure it is not just a stock-price manipulation but if I had the flooring I would do the testing, especially if anyone in my family displayed symptoms (sore throat, itchy eyes, cough, etc). Given it is wintertime a lot of “false positives” regarding symptoms are going to exist, but peace of mind is worth the money it would cost to eliminate the possibility of a problem (at least to me). If you agree SGS-Galson is ready to help.