Walking the plank: the flooring guide

New findings on toxins may have you yanking out your old flooring. But before you hit the home reno store, here's what's afoot.


VINYL

Cheap, yes, but not so cheerful. A recent study by the Michigan-based Ecology Center found most vinyl tile contains toxic phthalates, many banned from children’s toys. Not good when a 2012 Swedish study found phthalates in flooring migrated to kids’ bodies via skin contact and dust. Home Depot and Lowe’s now promise to phase out phthalates in flooring by the end of the year. Armstrong and Designer’s Image are two brands that tested negative for phthalates. But even phthalate-free vinyl can have other hazards. A report released last month by the Healthy Building Network says the recycled content in vinyl flooring can actually jack up levels of heavy metals, plasticizers and even PCBs. Better to opt for bio-based linoleum like Marmoleum.

SCORE: N

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LAMINATE

CBS’s 60 Minutes recently aired a show that found virtually every sample of Chinese-made laminate flooring purchased at Lumber Liquidators stores across the U.S. off-gassed formaldehyde at levels up to 20 times higher than California’s limit. LL has just announced it’s pulling Chinese laminates from stores. FYI, laminate flooring from Home Depot and Lowe’s had “acceptable levels.” Budget-conscious renovators can boost their green score by buying North American- or Euro-manufactured laminates made with Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood fibres with melamine that’s well tested for formaldehyde. Rona’s got some by Quebec’s Uniboard that’s at least 70 per cent FSC and meets California Air Resources Board (CARB) Phase 2 standards. 

SCORE: NN

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BAMBOO

Bamboo flooring has gotten a lot of green attention since it’s made with a fast-growing grass rather than trees. It’s a pretty affordable option as far as eco flooring goes. Of course, since it mostly comes from China, it has to travel over 10,000 miles to get to your living room. The other downside is that bamboo strands can be bound together with urea formaldehyde. Moreover, cheap suppliers have been churning out softer flooring that is less durable than claimed. If you’re sold on bamboo, you’ll have to cough up for quality. And make sure it can prove it’s been tested for formaldehyde. Some come with an FSC-approved seal, though there’s debate about whether that’s needed for bamboo. Ontario’s Nadurra and U.S.-based Teragren.com (see its website for local dealers) both offer good, green bamboo. 

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CORK

If you’re yanking out wall-to-wall rugs (which can trap pollutants and allergens), cork is a solid, sustainable, sound-cushioning option. No trees have to be cut down to cover your floors, and the industry helps keep important Spanish and Portuguese cork forest habitats thriving. The greenest cork floors, like Montreal’s DuroDesign’s, are made with 100 per cent post-industrial recycled leftovers from the wine-stopper business. Though they’re not pre-finished – four coats of low-VOC polyurethane are needed – they’re quite durable for those wearing anything but stilettos indoors. 

SCORE: NNNN 

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FSC CANADIAN WOOD

I’ve always dreamed of having reclaimed wood floors, but it’s hard to know whether that old flooring was treated with a now-banned PCB-heavy flooring finish – unless you’re getting sunken logs salvaged from river bottoms (like from Ottawa’s Logs End). Plus reclaimed floors are damn pricey

(unless you score them from Habitat for Humanity). Your next-greenest bet is 100 per cent Forest Stewardship Council-certified Canadian/North American-grown wood (thereby avoiding questionably sourced imports and exotic woods). Note that many flooring brands, like Mercier, offer FSC options. Some may only be as low as 50 per cent certified and not necessarily Canadian-sourced. Toronto’s Nadurra has some gorgeous FSC Canadian wood, including conservation grade that uses the entire tree, not just the whitest third like other floor products. It comes in natural and zero-VOC finish options. 

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