Hardwood Flooring and Indoor Air Quality - Tamalpais Hardwood Floors

girlonswingThe building industry has undergone significant changes in recent years in reaction to concerns about the environment and health. California is the nation’s pioneer in introducing and enforcing stricter protective laws for building materials and codes, one of which is the Airborne Toxics Control Measure (ATCM). This measure provides standard formaldehyde emissions ratings for all composite wood and manufactured wood products, including hardwood flooring. The following is a summary of what this measure is about and what applies to you as a consumer of hardwood flooring.

Health effects of formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is produced on a large scale worldwide. One major use includes the production of wood binding adhesives and resins. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) evaluated formaldehyde exposure in California. It found that one of the major sources of exposure is from inhalation of formaldehyde emitted from composite wood products containing urea-formaldehyde resins. The CARB study suggested that substandard composite wood products generate up to 5% of household formaldehyde emissions.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified formaldehyde from “probably carcinogenic to humans” to “carcinogenic to humans” in 2004, based on the increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. Formaldehyde was also designated as a toxic air contaminant (TAC) in California in 1992 with no safe level of exposure. State law requires CARB to take action to reduce human exposure to all TACs.

Airborne Toxics Control Measure

In 2007, CARB approved a new standard of formaldehyde emissions controls called the Airborne Toxics Control Measure (ATCM). A two-phase plan was put into effect. It requires composite wood product manufacturers to comply with strict standards for manufacturing, sale, use, or supply within the state of California.

Phase 1 began on January 1, 2009. The formaldehyde emission standards of equal to or less than 0.08 ppm (parts per million) took effect for hardwood, plywood, particleboard, and medium density fiberboard. This first step exceeded previous standards set by OSHA already in effect. Products adhering to this standard are referred to as “CARB 1 compliant”.

Phase 2 emission standards were slated for a staggered release beginning in January of 2010 through 2012. Phase 2 specifies even higher standards for formaldehyde emissions in wood products, 0.05 ppm. Phase 2 will mean adjustments to new adhesive procedures using NAF (no-added formaldehyde) or ULEF (ultra-low-emitting formaldehyde) resin. Fabricators are required to provide labeling and documentation in order to ensure that every step of the way from raw product to finished flooring, wallboard, or furniture, compliance is adhered to and the integrity of the product is protected. Furthermore, manufacturers must be certified by an ARB-approved third party certifier. Products adhering to this stricter standard are called to as “CARB 2 compliant”.

Important consumer information

While the industry is transitioning to these stricter standards, businesses are still allowed to sell products produced before even Phase 1 took effect. The ATCM has provisions that allow businesses a limited time to sell or use non-compliant composite wood products if those products were manufactured before the effective date of each emission standard. This is referred to as the sell-through period. If a composite wood product was manufactured after an applicable effective date, the product must meet the applicable emission standard.

CARB previously announced a delay until December 31, 2010, in the enforcement of the sell-through dates for distributors, importers, fabricators, and retailers of pre-Phase 1 finished goods. This date has now been extended until December 31, 2011, for distributors, fabricators, and retailers. For importers, the enforcement delay for pre-Phase 1 finished goods will still expire on December 31, 2010. Allowing the continued foreign importation into California of pre-Phase 1 finished goods would simply add to the existing inventories and make the problem worse. Therefore, the delay in enforcement does not apply to the foreign importation into California of pre-Phase 1 finished goods for sale in California.

Consumers wishing to purchase flooring that meets the highest standard for indoor air quality should select a product that is CARB 2 compliant. Manufacturers are already producing floors that meet Phase 2 standards, but are still selling older inventories that do not.

Beyond California

Although the ATCM currently affects only California, the impact is expected to reach far beyond to resonate eventually with all U.S. states. On July 7, 2010, President Obama signed into law Senate Bill 1660, which established the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act (the “Act”). The Act amends the federal Toxic Substance Control Act and requires the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) to develop a new federal regulation by January 1, 2013, to implement provisions of the Act. It mandates the same formaldehyde emission standards, as well as all other major regulatory elements, contained in the California ATCM.

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