Researchers with the non-profit Ecology Center today released the results of what they say is the largest-ever study of chemicals in home improvement products.
They tested more than 1,000 flooring samples and nearly 2,300 types of wallpaper for substances that have been linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer.
The results were released today on the www.HealthyStuff.org consumer website, which also includes prior research on toys, pet products, cars, women’s handbags, back-to-school products and children’s car seats.
"The public needs to know that there are practically no restrictions on chemicals used in home improvement products," said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s lead researcher, who founded HealthyStuff.org. "Our testing shows that toxic chemicals show up everywhere in home improvement products. If we don’t want these chemicals in our toys, we certainly don’t want them in our floors."
HealthyStuff.org tested home improvement products for chemicals based on their toxicity or tendency to build up in people and the environment. These chemicals include lead, bromine (brominated flame retardants), chlorine (PVC), cadmium, arsenic, tin (organotins), pththalates and mercury.
Phthalates–chemical additives used to soften PVC products–were particularly prominent in flooring and wallpaper, raising a number of health concerns. For example, a 2008 European study (Kolarik 2008) found an association between concentrations of phthalates in indoor dust and wheezing among preschool children, especially when PVC flooring was in the child’s bedroom.
In addition some phthalates have endocrine-disrupting properties, meaning that they can disturb normal hormonal processes, often at low levels of exposure. Studies have also demonstrated possible links between phthalates and adverse impacts on the reproductive system, kidneys, liver, and blood. Finally, a 2009 Swedish study (Larsson 2008) found that children who live in homes with vinyl floors, which can emit phthalates, are twice as likely to have autism.
People spend about 90% of their time indoors, so indoor concentrations of hazardous chemicals can be more relevant to human exposure assessment than ambient concentrations. Children and pets are particularly vulnerable, since they are frequently close to the floor and therefore have high levels of exposure. In fact, many of these substances have already been restricted or banned in children’s products.
In addition to finding many products with chemical hazards, HealthyStuff.org test data shows that many products do not contain dangerous substances, proving that safe products can be made.
Highlights of Findings from HealthyStuff.org’s Home Improvement Study:
Flooring: Flooring that was tested includes wood, bamboo, cork, carpet cushion, sheet flooring, and vinyl and ceramic tiles.
52 of 1,016 (5%) of all flooring samples had detectable levels of lead. Products with the highest percent of lead included: Vinyl Sheet Flooring: 23 of 731 (2%) samples of the vinyl sheet flooring had detectable levels of lead. Vinyl Tile Flooring: 29 of 39 (74%) of the tiles sampled contained detectable lead, with levels as high as 1,900 ppm.
Flooring samples contained numerous phthalates, at up to 12.9% by weight. Limited testing for phthalate plasticizers indicates most vinyl flooring contains four phthalate plasticizers recently banned in children’s products. Four representative samples of vinyl flooring were tested from two national brands, Armstrong and Congoleum, and two discount brands, Crystal and tiles sold through a local hardware chain.
Two-thirds 39 of 61 (64%) of PVC flooring tiles contained organotin stabilizers. Some forms of organotins are endocrine disruptors; and other forms can impact the developing brain and are toxic to the immune system.
Safe alternatives are available. Linoleum, cork, bamboo and hardwood all tested free of lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous metals. Non-vinyl flooring products are half as likely to contain hazardous chemical additives.
Wallpaper: HealthyStuff.org tested over 2,300 types of wallpaper, from 11 different brands and manufacturers.
The vast majority (96%) of the wallpapers sampled contained polyvinyl chloride (PVC) coatings.
Over one-half (53% or 1,234 of 2,312) of PVC wallpaper samples contained one or more hazardous chemicals of concern (at > 40 ppm levels) including lead, cadmium, chromium, tin and antimony.
Limited testing for phthalate plasticizers indicates that most PVC wallpaper also contains phthalates plasticizers which are now banned in children’s products.
Nearly one in five (18% or 419 of 2,312) wallpaper samples contained detectable levels of cadmium (>40 ppm). 13% (290 of 2,312) had levels over 100 ppm. All wallpaper with cadmium was vinyl coated.
To sample the home improvement products experts used a portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer and laboratory testing. XRF is an accurate device that has been used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to screen packaging; the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to screen food; and many State and County Health Departments to screen for residential lead paint. Additional samples were analyzed by laboratories using EPA test methods.
"With each new scientific report linking toxic chemical exposure to a serious health problem, it becomes more obvious that the law intended to keep harmful chemicals in check–the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976–is not working," said Andy Igrejas, Director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 250 groups, including the Ecology Center, working to overhaul our failed chemicals policy.
In response to the increasing consumer demand for safer products, Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representatives Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman have introduced bills to overhaul TSCA. The Safe Chemicals Act in the Senate and the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act in the House are expected to be re-introduced in the next Congressional session.