I want to get new floors put in my house, but everything seems to have aluminum oxide in it or some other toxic chemical. I'm being particularly careful because I have young children. Any advice? —Sangeeta Parmar
As the marketplace continually changes, you can’t be too vigilant about toxic chemicals in household products, especially when you have young children. Although, as detailed below, aluminum compounds in prefinished flooring seem safe enough, alternatives do exist. My advice is to weigh the information and then go with your parental instincts.
Aluminum oxide and aluminum chloride are often mixed into ultraviolet- (UV-) cured coatings for flooring. These aluminum compounds help to preserve floors by making urethane finishes more scratch-resistant. You needn’t worry about toxic aluminum exposures from new prefinished flooring in your home, according to Nicole Munoz of Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), an independent third-party certifier that makes sure products meet health and environmental standards.
Munoz, who specializes in indoor air quality, says that neither aluminum oxide nor aluminum chloride are among the “target” volatile organic compounds (VOCs) of concern under the California state standard that must be met in order to receive SCS’s FloorScore certification.
VOCs are compounds that readily “offgas” or evaporate out of products into the air. Target VOCs that pose health risks when inhaled include benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, styrene, toluene, and xylene. (You can see the full list here.)
“Health concerns for aluminum chloride [and oxide] are most prevalent during the manufacturing of the compound and during fires," Munoz notes. The compound is corrosive, which means that fumes can burn skin, eyes and lungs.
Prefinished flooring, on the other hand, has been applied and dried before it arrives. This is better for indoor air quality than unfinished flooring, which needs to be treated after installation. In addition, “UV-curing ovens greatly reduce potential VOC emissions as compared to traditional curing methods,” Munoz explains.
It is highly unlikely that these finishes will rub off on your children’s skin. But if you opt for these pretreated floorings, be sure to ask the seller what sort of cleaning product you should use, as some chemicals can remove aluminum compounds. And although the finishes are durable, they are not completely scratch-proof. Scraping or gouging can release chemical-infused dust from any treated floor. (Another reason—if you needed one—to discourage rough indoor play with hard objects.)
Now, here’s where parental intuition comes in. We often prefer to take precautions where the science raises questions but is inconclusive. Nanotechnology, the use of microscopic particles smaller than 100 nanometers, is involved in making these UV finishes. The scientific research on nanoparticles, which can easily be inhaled or absorbed by skin, is preliminary but shows some grounds for concern, especially with regard to metals used in cosmetics. A good overview can be found in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Clearly, a hard, cured floor is much more stable than, say, a face powder. Still, your children’s bare feet and hands will be in constant contact with the floor, and so little is known about nanoparticles’ potential ability to migrate out of the many products that contain them. So you may choose to avoid flooring finished with aluminum oxide or chloride, especially because alternatives exist.
I advise selecting unfinished flooring or wood that’s been pretreated with less toxic substances. But either way, look for materials that have been sustainably sourced. There are two top options:
1) New wood that bears the seal of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or one of its certifiers, such as Rainforest Alliance. You can look for retailers using FSC’s search function, but Go Green Flooring, Eco Floors, and Fantastic Floors are great places to start.
2) Old wood that has been reclaimed and vetted by Rainforest Alliance’s Smartwood program.
Be forewarned that many conventional urethanes, even water-based ones, contain toxic glycol ethers, which are dangerous VOCs. For safer products, see my recent “Ask Mindy” on floor finishes. I also advise speaking with a consultant about various flooring and finishing options at Green Depot or Environmental Home Center.