Lumber Liquidators is in the news again, this time because of its vinyl laminate flooring. On November 17, a release published by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, "a non-profit organization that challenges U.S. retailers to adopt policies to identify, restrict and phase out hazardous chemicals from the marketplace by safely substituting the Hazardous 100+ chemicals in common consumer products," said that Lumber Liquidators has committed to selling vinyl flooring made without reprocessed PVC. The Mind the Store Campaign, a project of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, announced in its release that because of its findings, Lumber Liquidators has adopted new standards that require the company's suppliers of vinyl flooring to end all use of reprocessed PVC in vinyl flooring and limit lead in flooring to less than 100 parts per million.
An April study from HealthyStuff.org, a project of the Michigan-based nonprofit Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, referenced in the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families release, found that most vinyl flooring tested contained toxic phthalates. The 65 flooring samples tested were purchased from home improvement retailers including Lowe's, Menards and Lumber Liquidators. According to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, 58% of the vinyl flooring tested was found to contain phthalate plasticizers, and 89% of the samples contained organic tin-based stabilizers.
The testing reportedly also found that reprocessed vinyl plastic is often contaminated with lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, phthalates and other toxic chemicals. "In at least 69% of the floors' inner layers tested from six major retailers, lead was present at elevated concentrations," according to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. "Testing revealed lead levels as high as 10,000 ppm and cadmium at 20,000 ppm. The contamination results from the global trade in plastic waste, which is often recovered from the wire and cables from old computers and other electronics," according to the recent Healthy Building Network report."
A report on the CBS news show 60 Minutes in March claimed that high levels of formaldehyde in Lumber Liquidators' Chinese-made laminate flooring failed to meet California standards. This resulted in Lumber Liquidators voluntarily offering indoor air quality testing to some of its flooring customers, "predominantly those who had purchased laminate flooring sourced from China," said a May 7, 2015, release. Independent, accredited laboratories found that over 97% of customers' homes were within the protective guidelines established by the World Health Organization for formaldehyde levels in indoor air.
In the same release, Lumber Liquidators announced that a special committee composed of independent directors, with the assistance of third party advisors, conducted a review of these allegations. It included a "comprehensive review of the company's sourcing compliance program and related policies." Preliminary findings by the committee revealed "that the company's Chinese laminate flooring suppliers have sold product to the company that the suppliers have certified and labeled as compliant with California formaldehyde standards. However, the company is further reviewing the underlying certification and labeling processes and practices of its suppliers. In light of this and mounting industry concerns relating to laminate products sourced from China, the company this week [May 7, 2015] decided to suspend sales of all laminate flooring sourced from China pending completion of the review."
Ultimately several people lost their jobs, including William K. Schlegel, Chief Merchandising Officer, who was terminated on June 19. That position was given to Marco Pescara, Chief Marketing Officer, who is now also Chief Merchandising Officer, according to a release from Lumber Liquidators.
Home Depot, in a release published by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families on April 22, reportedly made a commitment to phase out phthalates in vinyl flooring carried by the retailer by the end of 2015, and "has a more comprehensive policy than the competitors." As of the first quarter of 2015, the release noted that Home Depot had accomplished 85% of the phase out. That release noted that "Lumber Liquidators reported it was working with suppliers to transition to alternatives but [had] not set a deadline."
The press releases from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families do not mention whether or not the vinyl flooring products in question—from Lumber Liquidators or Home Depot—were manufactured by Chinese suppliers, U.S. manufacturers or a combination. Attempts to reach Lumber Liquidators to confirm that they have since stopped using Chinese suppliers for their flooring products in favor of U.S. suppliers were unsuccessful. Questions presented to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families also went unanswered. Continued attempts to get a response were unsuccessful.
However, a Vinyl Institute spokesperson noted that the efforts of these groups are dealing a serious blow to the recycling efforts, including for PVC, that have been put into place. "All the work that's been done in developing recycling has been thrown under the bus by this group's activities," said the spokesperson. "The bulk of PVC manufactured today has no lead, cadmium or other toxins. There may be some in much older materials used in reprocessing but most of that goes into applications that never really see much human contact, such as traffic cones. You have to keep in mind the level of risk."
An e-mail to Arjen Sevenster, Manager Technical and Environmental Affairs for the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers (ECVM), elicited this response: "As far as I am aware, brominated flame retardants were never used to manufacture PVC products in Europe. PVC contains sufficient chlorine to ensure good performance in fire. Cadmium has been used to stabilize some PVC products, essentially window profiles. It has been phased out in Europe for many years, as reported in the VinylPlus website. Phthalates are indeed used. There are two kinds: Low molecular weight ones, like DEHP, which are hazardous, and high molecular weight ones, like DINP and DIDP, which are not hazardous. European flooring manufacturers do not use DEHP anymore. Obviously, this information refers to Europe. We cannot claim to know all the substance Chinese manufacturers use in their PVC products."
PlasticsToday will stay on this and try to clarify the manufacturing country of origin of the flooring samples tested, and make further attempts to get comments from Lumber Liquidators and Home Depot.