The trend toward healthy includes your home
By Diane Martel, Vice President, Environmental Planning and Strategy – General Management for Tarkett North America
Each year, health plays a larger role in national news media, manufacturing decisions and consumer consciousness. It’s a mega trend that has many consumers diligently checking food and medicine labels, using real-time data to optimize exercise activity and demanding healthier lifestyle choices in the workplace.
Even the chemistry of home goods products are under closer scrutiny, as evidenced by a 60 Minutes report that revealed Lumber Liquidators was selling laminate flooring from China containing high levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen linked to cancer and respiratory problems.
Next, The Home Depot, Lowe’s and other big box retailers announced they would eliminate phthalates – specifically ortho-phthalates – substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity – from all vinyl flooring products.
Understanding the trends
Ortho-phthalates are a family of chemical plasticizers that have been widely used since the 1950’s for a broad array of products such as flooring, beauty products, shower curtains, electronics, furniture, medical products and devices and more.
It is believed that some phthalates may leach out of products on surfaces and into the air, which has sparked concerns about their perceived negative impact on consumer health. Recent studies reveal phthalates migrate out of flooring products and mix with dust, and may create asthma and allergy issues for inhabitants.
With increased concern about the effect chemical leaching may have on indoor air quality (IAQ), product manufacturers are paying closer attention to reducing emissions from the chemicals.
Hundreds of products found in almost any home produce thousands of chemical emissions over their respective life cycles. Every material, whether manmade or natural, emits – especially when new. Compounding this challenge are new energy-efficiency requirements in both residential and commercial spaces. While tightly-sealed, energy efficient designs can reduce the high costs of heating and cooling in buildings (which account for approximately 39 percent of energy consumption in the U.S.), they also multiply the factors that cause asthma and allergies by limiting air exchange, essentially sealing in “bad” air.
The effects are widespread, as there is no specific age or gender that directly relates to heightened allergy sensitivities. However, the number of children with asthma and allergies in North America has increased in recent years, in large part due to indoor air quality measuring, on average, 10 times worse than outdoors, according to the EPA. Combined with the effects of today’s population spending more time indoors than ever before, issues regarding poor indoor air quality have rapidly been pushed to the forefront of consumer consciousness.
Making better choices
It’s important to remember that it’s not the content of the product that makes the biggest impact on improving IAQ, but rather, what – and how much – the product is emitting. While emissions from one product may be within reasonable limits, negative health impacts will be magnified if total volatile organic compound (TVOC) emissions in a home exceed acceptable levels. Below are a few simple steps consumers can take to create healthier homes.
- Read the label. Transparency in labeling food items is paramount to most consumers. But transparency is just as important when it comes to labeling non-food items. In fact, transparent labeling is increasingly important to a new generation of savvy consumers who want to assess products they will be bringing into their homes before buying them. Visit manufacturer websites to learn about a company’s commitment to the safety of the planet and their products’ impact on your health.
- Buy the best. There is no value in knowing all of a product’s ingredients if you don’t know their actual impact on indoor air quality. Choose products that have low- or non-detectable VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions to help improve indoor air quality. Consumers can ensure a higher quality of life by purchasing from reliable sources.
- Ensure air flow. Builders and homeowners should understand the long-term, positive effects of installing HVAC systems that will mechanically change the air on a regular basis. In order to allow your space to breathe, open windows for at least 10 to 15 minutes a day.
- Breathe easy. Your family is a worthwhile investment. Make a commitment to improving the air they breathe by purchasing CERTIFIED asthma & allergy friendly™ products when they are available. Again, asthma or allergies aren’t predictable by gender or age, although it should be no surprise that a child’s immune system is most susceptible to the impact of VOCs. The effects can be more dramatic than you might expect: children ages 5-17 miss 10.5 million school days per year due to asthma.
The trend towards healthy living has motivated many consumers to ask the right questions and take responsibility for the health and safety of their families, themselves and their homes. While most homeowners stand at the beginning of the curve of adoption, the urgency for change has been accelerated by awareness about the possible dangers of formaldehyde and ortho-phthalates. The building products industry is working towards minimizing the risk of exposure, and consumers should expect upcoming changes to be even more progressive and impactful.
 Bamai, Y.A., Shibata, E., Saito, I., Araki, A., Kanazawa, A., Morimoto, K., Nakayama, K., Tanaka, M., Takigawa, T., Yoshimura, T., Chikara, H., Saijo, Y., Kishi, R., 2014. Exposure to house dust phthalates in relation to asthma and allergies in both children and adults. Science of The Total Environment 153–163.
 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 2008 Buildings Energy Data Book. Prepared for the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by D&R International, 2008.
Diane Martel, Vice President, Environmental Planning and Strategy – General Management for Tarkett North America, drives the company’s sustainable messaging, programs and initiatives. She works with all divisions of Tarkett North America to develop and implement an environmental strategy and action plan, ensuring awareness across the industry.
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