Formaldehyde leakage calls for more third-party testing

In a recent and well-publicized report, 60 Minutes claimed that Lumber Liquidators has been providing Chinese-made laminate hardwood flooring with formaldehyde emissions far higher than California Air Resource Board Phase 2 (CARB 2) requirements. While the details of the findings are still under scrutiny, the 60 Minutes undercover investigative team spoke with three of the Chinese manufacturers and found that all three provided falsely-labeled laminate flooring that was not CARB 2 compliant.

“Unbiased analysis may reveal deficiencies in the supply chain.”

If these allegations hold up, Lumber Liquidators will have to answer for the hundreds of thousands laminate boards installed in homes in California and across the nation. But the entire controversy might have been avoided if North America’s largest and fastest-growing hardwood flooring retailer had relied upon independent plastics testing laboratories. These outside analytical testing services providers can determine the safety and compliancy of the materials used and flag possible issues in the supply line.

Formaldehyde levels exceed regulations
In the state of California, it is not illegal for core board or laminate flooring to contain formaldehyde – a known carcinogen. However, the laminated top is responsible for keeping the chemical from leaking into the air, according to the 60 Minutes report. It was this laminate that was found to be lacking in Lumber Liquidators’ Chinese products.

Two attorneys who filed suit against Lumber Liquidators sent over 150 boxes of the laminate flooring in question to three separate testing labs. The results showed that every sample of Chinese-produced laminate flooring from Lumber Liquidators exceeded CARB 2 standards by a significant amount.

“The average level in Lumber Liquidators products that we found was over six to seven times above the state standard for formaldehyde,” environmental attorney Richard Drury told 60 Minutes. “And we found some that were close to 20 times above the level that’s allowed to be sold.”

It wasn’t just the California products that exhibited high levels of formaldehyde. In the report, 60 Minutes also sent 31 boxes of samples of Lumber Liquidators’ Chinese-made laminate flooring from Virginia, Florida, Texas, Illinois and New York. All but one box did not comply with emissions standards.

The importance of third-party materials testing
What’s unclear about the tests is whether or not Lumber Liquidators knew the Chinese manufacturers were providing non-compliant flooring. Those same labs found the company’s American-made flooring product to be within range of the regulations. Lumber Liquidator founder Tom Sullivan said that if the allegations were true, it would be troublesome and that the organization would conduct its own investigation.

However, Sullivan would be wise to require – and adhere to – an independent testing laboratory as a way to guarantee his products are up to standard and provide a defensible trial in the case of allegations like the ones from 60 Minutes. In addition, unbiased analysis may reveal deficiencies in the supply chain – for example, that trusted Chinese manufacturers are mislabeling and selling toxic laminate floorboards.

Materials analysis experts can find hazardous product deficiencies.
Materials analysis experts can find hazardous product deficiencies.

But it isn’t only for quality control that producers should lean on an independent materials testing lab. In 2013, the EPA proposed two rule changes to its Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act that could take effect this year. The first rule would provide a framework for a third-party certification program that ensures composite wood panel manufacturers align with formaldehyde emissions regulations. The second one would establish the accepted levels of formaldehyde that may be released from composite wood products, including laminate flooring, particle board and others that are sold, supplied, manufactured or imported in the U.S.

In other words, these EPA rule changes would require composite wood producers to work with an independent consumer product testing laboratory in order to prove the materials align with to-be-determined formaldehyde emissions levels. These standards would cover the entire U.S. rather than varying from state to state.

Testing labs can help protect consumers from faulty products
The upshot of this entire controversy is that independent testing labs can play an integral role in protecting individuals from chemical contaminants emitted by deficient products. While mechanical, aesthetic or durability shortcomings are easily spotted by the consumer, chemical emissions require a professional analysis. In many cases, the toxin in question is not overtly evident – especially in low doses. But prolonged exposure can still pose a health risk.

In the case of composite woods, the glues used to hold together wood particles can emit formaldehyde slowly and consistently over a long period of time, if left unchecked. The lamination on these wood products is there to contain that emission, but if the coating is not strong enough, the chemicals will leak. Unfortunately, it remains a challenge for consumers to detect formaldehyde levels in their home. That’s why a third-party material analysis expert must determine the laminates’ ability to suppress the formaldehyde emission.

As formaldehyde can cause cancer and induce asthma, especially in children, it’s essential that manufacturers of products containing the toxin due their diligence by sending materials to independent labs for testing.