by Angela Cummings and Sophia Ruan Gushée
Kids spend a lot of time on the floor. From infant’s “tummy time,” to toddlers crawling, to young kids racing cars and playing dolls, the floor is a major space in the life of young children. So parents should pay special attention to whether the floors may pose health risks to children.
Most parents don't know that children are more vulnerable to chemicals than adults, even at tiny exposures.(1) (2) These chemicals can be found in food, clothing, and flooring materials.
Found in every room of the house, flooring covers a large area of the interior of a home, making it a significant factor in indoor air quality. Different types of flooring have been found to off-gas VOCs into the air and contain chemicals found on the Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) list created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In creating toxic-free flooring, it's worth getting to know our flooring materials since there are layers and components of flooring materials. Each can contain chemicals that pollute indoor air quality and pose health risks.
If you are replacing or installing new flooring, consider following five options below.
Carpet flooring involves many considerations:
Fibers, dyes, and padding. Synthetic fibers often include polyester, nylon, and rayon. Natural fibers often include wool, silk, cotton, and linen. In addition to the fibers used, you should consider dyes and the carpet padding, which is often made of polyurethane foam.
For more on textiles and dyes, read Safer Textiles to Detox Your Home.
Fore more on polyurethane foam, read Is Polyurethane Foam in Your Mattress?
Adhesives. Adhesives are often used to glue carpet to the subfloor (floor underneath the carpet). Installers often use tack strips (strips of pine wood and nails) on the perimeter of a room to install carpet as well, depending on the type of subfloor underneath.
Less toxic carpet options include:
Beyond chemical make-ups, carpets harbor dust. The same dust found to contain harmful chemicals from clothing, electronics, and other common household sources.(4) Generally speaking, carpet is not the healthiest flooring option.
Considered as one of the healthiest materials for flooring, ceramic tile has often been made from nontoxic materials, does not off-gas, and usually does not contain chemicals that are harmful to health. Underneath the ceramic floor tile, a ridged surface must be installed so that the ceramic tile doesn’t break (ceramic is not a flexible product like other flooring options).
Read more at The Pros and Cons of Ceramic. Advances in technology complicates the safety of ceramics.
To adhere the tile, a thinset mortar is used. After the tile is set, grout is installed to fill in the spaces between the tiles. Each of these products can contain additives and other chemicals that may affect health. Use water-based thinset and cement-based grout as healthier installation materials.(5) When cutting tile, the ceramic dust particles can create a health concern. Cut tiles outdoors for a healthier installation process.
Ceramic tile is easy to clean and does not hold dirt or dust. It is widely considered one of the least toxic flooring materials available today.
Wood flooring can be broken into three very different categories: composite wood, laminate wood and solid wood. All three categories have wood in them, but the amount of adhesives and chemicals used to produce the woods are one of the significant differences among them.
Composite Wood – Composite wood, a.k.a. engineered wood or pressed wood, is wood dust or wood scraps that are bonded together with adhesives and resins. Common examples include plywood, particleboard, and medium-density fiberboard.(6) Composite wood is commonly used for subfloor material. It can be installed with adhesives or nailed down.
Laminate Wood – Laminate is when a plastic coating is added to the top of composite wood so that it looks like wood grain. Laminate wood flooring can even have grooves in it to help resemble real wood. But don’t be fooled, it’s not real wood. Often, laminate wood flooring can be installed using a click-system, which means the laminate wood boards come with an edge that allows pieces to click together. Depending on the style of laminate wood boards, they may have to be installed using adhesives.
Solid Wood – Solid wood is exactly what it sounds like: it's 100% wood. Not wood dust or scraps, but actual wood. Interior solid wood flooring is made from hardwood (vs. softwood that dents and wears easier), and is among the healthier options for flooring. Like ceramic tile, hardwood flooring does not harbor dust or debris and is easy to keep clean. Solid hardwood flooring can be installed using nails instead of adhesives that can contain chemicals that may be harmful to health.
When installing wood, have contractors cut the wood planks outdoors to avoid unnecessary dust to be created during installation. Seek contractors that use a “dustless” system for finishing wood floors. While there will be dust created, the dustless system should help reduce the amount of dust that becomes air born in the home. Zero- or low-VOC stains and finishes can be applied to solid wood flooring as a healthier option for finishing.
Linoleum flooring can contain chemicals that off-gas VOCs(7), however natural linoleum is made from natural products and has been identified as a healthier flooring option in the building industry.(8) Natural linoleum is made from linseed oil, pine resin, wood flour, cork flour, limestone and coloring that are pressed together onto a jute backing, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living Home Guide.
Linoleum comes in click-flooring or sheets. In order to install sheet linoleum, adhesives must be used.(9) Low-VOC adhesives that do not contain solvents can be used. If choosing click-flooring, be aware of the materials used in the click system. It may be made from composite wood.
Vinyl flooring comes in sheet and tile, known as vinyl tile flooring. Vinyl tile flooring should not be confused with ceramic tile flooring. The two are nothing alike.
Vinyl flooring in any form is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and has been found to be one of the least healthy materials.(10) Installation requires that an adhesive be used to adhere the vinyl tiles to the subfloor. The adhesives often contain chemicals that are also harmful to health. All around, vinyl is the least attractive option for those seeking nontoxic flooring.
When choosing flooring, consider installing a couple of the widely accepted options for toxic-free flooring, such as ceramic tile and solid hardwood flooring. They typically off-gassing fewer VOCs and HAPs, which can lead to healthier indoor air quality. That means there are fewer chemicals for our children’s bodies to have to process. Bonus: ceramic tile and solid hardwood flooring are easier to keep clean!
Curious which specific brands of products our nontoxic living expert, Sophia Ruan Gushée, uses? Hire her to help you more quickly figure out your detox plan. Check out her programs at the D-Tox Academy to detox your home and life at a pace that’s comfortable for you. The academy includes micro-lessons—short videos and checklists—to help you jumpstart easy tweaks you can make for healthier wellbeing.
(5) (8) (9) EWG
(7) (10) Health Care Research Collaborative