Do Your Floors Really Have Formaldehyde?

A "60 Minutes" report accused Lumber Liquidators of selling Chinese-made flooring with illegal levels of formaldehyde.
A "60 Minutes" report accused Lumber Liquidators of selling Chinese-made flooring with illegal levels of formaldehyde.  Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Hardwood floors are many things: classic, expensive, rustic — but dangerous? That may be the case for anyone who installed flooring with hazardous amounts of formaldehyde in it. The toxin, which can release into the air from flooring, is known to cause nose and throat cancer, trouble breathing, coughing, sore throat, and affect respiratory function.

A recent 60 Minutes episode documented large-scale manufacturers such as Lumber Liquidators supplying customers with flooring that contains high levels of formaldehyde, which violates safety limits set by Congress. The episode leaned on private investigators and California Air Resources Board-funded testing, but there have also been reviews from the EPA that backed the report. The bottom line: A significant amount of wood flooring in the U.S. has unlawful amounts of formaldehyde in it.

"We are outraged that there are manufacturers that are violating that law and creating illegal products that are labeled as legal," says Bill Magavern, policy director at the Coalition for Clean Air. The advocacy group helped establish the standards for the chemical with the California Air Resources Board, a government agency.

The California Air Resources Board set the original standards for formaldehyde emissions in wood flooring in California. And Congress adopted the state's limits when it passed the Formaldehyde Standards Act in 2010. That law is scheduled to take effect nationwide this year, but there's been no enforcement to date.

Because so many of the offending products are labeled as having passed safety standards, Magavern says that the only way to be absolutely certain that your flooring does not contain formaldehyde is to avoid installing composite wood products like medium-density fiberboard, particle fiberboard, and hardwood plywood from China — the only source that appears to be selling illegal flooring. (See the EPA's consumer guidelines for more information). These offenders have been found to use glue that reacts with the flooring to constantly emit formaldehyde.

Most wood flooring is manufactured with some amount of formaldehyde to help hold the wood together. But the chemical is only supposed to be emitted briefly following installation. The solution, for now is to have the air in your home tested. Reacting to the reports of formaldehyde, Lumber Liquidators announced Thursday that it would provide free air testing to all consumers who have purchased their products. You can also buy your own testing kit for about $80, with lab results in one to two weeks.