One question we often get is “Do your floors off-gas, and what are the levels of formaldehyde?” While we know that our floors meet the highest standards of safety, we also know there’s a bit of fear-mongering on the web related to bamboo flooring. We are also very transparent about the safety of our products, so much so that we have an entire page dedicated to it on our website. Living in a house with toxic building materials is a scary thought. It can understandably worry anyone thinking of putting a certain type of floor in their home because their first thoughts will be for the safety of their family. However, bamboo flooring has been installed around the world for almost 25 years – in homes, offices, restaurants, schools, hotels and many other environments. Bamboo floors have always proven to be safe, eco-friendly, beautiful, tough, and affordable. Perhaps it is this combination of tough-to-beat factors that explains why there are some articles on the web questioning the safety of bamboo flooring with regards to formaldehyde, usually by vested interests of one type or another.
As we all know, we now live in a world where alternative facts are confidently stated as truths, where some companies will say just about anything to sell their wares, and where science and reality are often cast aside in favor of rumor and innuendo. We ourselves have seen articles on the web implying bamboo floors are dangerous and full of formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), with very little (if any) facts provided to verify those statements. Unfortunately, these misleading articles have been copied and pasted as fact around the web. But fortunately, they have led to bamboo floors becoming the most tested hardwood floors on the planet in terms of toxicity – which in the end isn’t a bad thing!
Bamboo flooring and what the science actually says
So let’s take a look at what the science actually says about bamboo flooring and its effect (or lack thereof) on human health, so you can make an informed decision on what is best for you and your home. Because anyone who’s really done their research knows that high-quality bamboo floor brands have levels of formaldehyde in their floors that are so low, they’re virtually undetectable, less than .02 parts per million.
What are VOCs and Formaldehyde?
VOCs are chemical compound particles that vaporize naturally over time at room temperature. They can be naturally produced by plants, animals, and microbes, but can also be human-made in the production of items like paints, varnishes, cleaning products, refrigerants, and cigarettes. Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring, strong-smelling chemical that has been used in the production of many building materials and household items for decades, while also serving as an industrial-strength disinfectant that can be used to preserve the dead in morgues and medical labs. Inside the average home, you’ll find some level of formaldehyde in most household items, including:
- cavity wall or loft insulation
- glues or other adhesives
- cleaning products (i.e. dishwasher tablets, disinfectant, laundry detergents)
- gas stoves
- permanent-press fabrics
- kerosene space heaters
This means that both VOCs and formaldehyde are very useful to our daily lives, so we can’t just stop buying everything that emits formaldehyde. We just have to be careful with what we buy! Even humans produce formaldehyde, and we wouldn’t want to give up living with other people…. Well, we might, but formaldehyde emissions would be a super weird (and probably illegal) reason to kick out your roommate.
What binding agents are used in bamboo flooring?
Solid strand woven bamboo floors use only phenol-formaldehyde resins, which typically do not result in emissions considered hazardous. Engineered bamboo floors, like all engineered hardwoods, do use trace amounts of urea-formaldehyde during manufacturing, but it is generally in very low, safe quantities. These quantities are roughly equivalent to the levels used in the production of household and office furniture and cleaning products.
Are there formaldehyde-free brands of bamboo flooring?
Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring organic compound that exists in everything, including our breath and our cellular structure, so it’s hard to say anything is truly “formaldehyde-free”. However, when it comes to flooring, there are products that are so low in formaldehyde, they meet the “No Added Urea Formaldehyde (NAUF)” standard. Most high-quality bamboo flooring in the US meets this standard.
How can VOCs and formaldehyde affect human health?
It’s no secret that exposure to large quantities of VOCs and formaldehyde or exposure to them over a prolonged period of time can have a negative effect on human health. This is especially true if they are breathed in by someone with a weakened immune system or someone who has difficulty breathing. This is why you’re advised to avoid smoking around children and open the windows when painting. Researchers who specialize in Indoor Environmental Quality report that indoor air can potentially be way more polluted than outdoor air. The reason for this includes contaminants often found indoors like mold and other pollutants, as well as emissions of VOCs or formaldehyde from furniture or furnishings, which is bad for overall health. This is cause for concern because most Americans spend the vast majority of their time indoors (i.e. in the office, at the gym, at home) and very rarely get fresh air that isn’t being recirculated by an air conditioning unit. These VOCs/formaldehyde emissions can cause some serious problems to your health, including, but are not limited to:
- irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
- skin irritation
- depression and mood changes
- attention deficit
- impairment of dexterity, memory, and equilibrium
- increased risk of asthma attacks
- damage to the central nervous system, including increased risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)/ Lou Gehrig’s disease
- cancer, including nose, throat, and leukemia
The World Health Organization (WHO) even lists formaldehyde gas as a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) in humans, which rightly makes people concerned about what they’re putting into their homes. It is especially problematic if you or someone you love is vulnerable to these emissions i.e. children, the elderly, those with difficulties in breathing, or those with compromised immune systems. However, the majority of serious problems caused by these emissions do not arise from everyday home use and are more likely to affect those who are working around the toxic chemicals all day long, like morticians, lab technicians, and industrial workers who produce products that may emit these chemical compounds. There is scarce evidence to support the idea that coming into contact with these emissions at the low and safe levels found in your home furnishings would risk your health, especially if you take precautions, such as getting time outside in the fresh air and checking that your furniture meets the necessary safety requirements. It’s like how fast food would cause damaging and sometimes irreversible health problems if you ate it every day, but in small quantities, it can serve an important function without hurting you, as long as you eat right and exercise at other times.
What does the evidence say specifically regarding bamboo floors and human health?
Bamboo flooring has been safely used in homes across the world since the mid-90s. In terms of actual scientific data, there is little supporting evidence (if you see it, let us know!) that bamboo flooring has ever resulted in sickness, or even that emissions from bamboo floors have ever tested at harmful levels to human (or kitty cat) health. Realistically, the varnishes on your wood furniture and cabinetry are as likely to be a problem as the floor you’re walking on. Still, the flooring industry is choosing to err on the side of caution and limit any potential harms by adhering to European E1 standards for indoor air quality at a minimum, which states that these floors should have formaldehyde levels of no more than 0.1 parts per million (ppm). This is the level at which the National Cancer Institute says emissions can start to affect people at the lower end of the scale (i.e. nausea, irritation to the ear, nose, and throat). Many are going far beyond that by adhering to the California Air Resource Board’s Phase II standard for indoor air quality, which is regarded as the strictest in the world and sets its levels at 0.05ppm.
What else is the industry doing?
The potential risk to human health is not something that the flooring industry is taking lightly, which is why they are taking major precautions to keep their customers safe. There are now a number of special standards to qualify that products meet strict indoor air quality standards, so you can be assured that your gorgeous bamboo floors will not expose you or your family to toxic chemicals. These standards include:
- The Resilient Floor Covering Institute’s FloorScore
- The CARB Phase 2 indoor air standard
- Greenguard Gold
The most reputable brands of bamboo flooring will typically have a page on their website where they post annual test results related to indoor air quality, so you may inquire with the company you’re considering.
What can I, as a consumer, do to reduce the impact of these emissions on myself and my family?
If you are considering a beautiful bamboo floor but are still concerned about the risk of formaldehyde or VOC exposure, then consider these steps to increase the safety of the product you buy, both at the time of purchase and in the future.
- Pick a reputable brand: We’ve spoken a lot about how the quality and safety of the bamboo flooring will vary based on the company you buy from, so check them out. Ask to see their indoor air quality test results and make sure those results were achieved within the past year or two.
- Choose solid bamboo floors: In a study by Consumer Reports - which was not specifically looking at bamboo flooring, but rather flooring in general – they found that flooring made from solid wood had lower formaldehyde emissions than engineered products (including vinyl, laminate, and engineered hardwoods), which they believed was due to the glues used in the production of engineered flooring.
- Get some fresh air: This means opening the windows occasionally to let in fresh air. It also means getting some time in the open air, whether that’s taking the dog for a walk or playing football in the park with your kids. You should also ban anyone from smoking inside your home since that will add pollutants in the air.
What if I get my bamboo flooring and it smells funny?
If you’ve recently purchased a bamboo floor and you’re worried about it being toxic because it smells a little funny, don’t panic. There are many reasons why you shouldn’t worry if your bamboo floor has a chemical smell for the first few days. It’s likely that the flooring planks were sealed up to be shipped before the varnish smell could dissipate, and it just needs time to air out, much like a freshly-painted room. The smell should leave within a couple of days, and if the flooring planks haven’t yet been installed, try keeping them in a garage or shed until installation so you don’t have to smell them. Oh, and wear a facemask if you’re installing them so that the particles resulting from the cutting process aren’t inhaled – just like any other time you’re cutting building materials with a saw. If the floor has already been installed, keep the room(s) well ventilated (i.e. opening the windows, using oscillating fans) and spend time in other rooms while waiting for the smell to disappear.
Benefits to human health
We’ve spoken a lot about the potential dangers to human health posed by emissions from bamboo flooring, so now let’s look at how your beautiful bamboo flooring can actually improve your health. It reduces allergens, like dust and mites, because the smooth and rigid surface of bamboo flooring doesn’t allow them to hide in cracks or carpet. Thus, the irritants are easily picked up by the vacuum cleaner or soft-bristled broom and disposed of. So, take a deep breath and don’t let fear-mongering and scare tactics stop you from buying an eco-friendly and beautiful bamboo floor that can last for decades to come. Look at the scientific evidence (or lack thereof) surrounding the dangers posed to human health through installing a bamboo floor, and decide for yourself. We’re certain that you’ll realize that not only is bamboo flooring safe for human habitation, it’s also a safe investment that will boost the value of your home for years to come.
Have questions about bamboo flooring? Then check out the Bamboo Flooring 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Bamboo Floors to learn everything you need to know.