Could your floors be making you sick? How to find out and what you can do

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By now you’ve likely heard something of the recent brouhaha over Lumber Liquidators’ laminate flooring. The back story: A 60 Minutes report claimed laminate flooring produced by Lumber Liquidators in China contained dangerous and illegal levels of formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. The company stands by the safety of its product and maintains improper tests were conducted on the flooring by the popular CBS news program. (But a follow-up story on says that the firm's CEO also admits to being aware of "elevated levels," but thinks they have "no bearing on the safety of the finished product.") The company's stock, which plummeted after the broadcast, has since recovered as Wall Street begins to question the validity of the report.

The story got us thinking about whether our own floors had the potential to make us sick. Obviously, the jury's still out as the 60 Minutes episode comes under scrutiny, but experts told us there probably isn't any reason to worry. “The majority of the homes and apartments that I go into, especially in NYC, do not have laminate flooring,” says Matthew Waletzke, a certified building biology environmental consultant, which means he’s trained to test the quality of your home’s water, air and building materials for toxins.

He points out that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) testing methodology for laminate flooring (which is the standard to which Lumber Liquidators complies) is to sand off the top layer of wood, expose the core of the flooring and then test it for toxicity. “Exposure in a home with installed laminate will be much different, and most likely much lower, since that top layer is not removed and the formaldehyde is somewhat sealed into the flooring planks,” says Waletzky. “I am not saying that this isn't an issue, just that the exposure in a real world setting, such as a home or apartment, would not be the same as in a lab.”

So what’s a neurotic New Yorker to do? Waletzky recommends watching for signs of formaldehyde exposure (which include respiratory symptoms and eye, nose and throat irritation per the Environmental Protection Agency, but check with your physician to rule out all possible causes).

You can also verify the quality of your apartment’s air with a home air quality test (about $95 at your local hardware store and free to Lumber Liquidator consumers who can request a kit via the company’s customer care line at 800-366-4204 ) or hire an expert, like Waletzky, to do the job with more high-tech—and presumably accurate—testing equipment.

To reduce emissions from indoor air pollutants like formaldehyde, CARB suggests making sure your home has proper ventilation by opening windows and letting fresh air in through a central ventilation system or running exhaust fans. Keeping indoor temperatures and humidity low with an air conditioner and/or dehumidifier will help draw moisture from the air and help decrease the amount of formaldehyde off-gassing inside the home. 

You may not need to rip up and replace your floors. Not only would it be costly (about $2.99-7.79 per square foot for hardwood at HomeDepot in Manhattan, plus installation), “most apartment insurance policies exclude damage caused by inherent defect of improper construction,” says Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage Company, which means a problem with your apartment's construction materials are not something that’s going to be covered by your plan.  

While it will be interesting to see what happens once the dust settles on this drama, for now, it looks like we can all breathe easy.


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