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Breathe it in

Richard Aylen, technical manager at Junckers, says his clients’ interest in emissions produced by flooring is a heads up to industry that health and wellbeing are increasingly being linked to the way we use materials and resources.

COULD your floor finishes be affecting your health and wellbeing? Yes, possibly. This question is being asked by increasing numbers of designers and clients and the issue sits alongside concerns about sustainability, recycling, and damage to the environment.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), including carcinogens such as formaldehyde top the list of concerns. The fairly recent discovery that so much of our environment, both land and sea, has been contaminated by plastics only prompts consumers to become more suspicious of the materials they are living with, and in recent years there have been concerns about the possible effects of long-term emissions from adhesives, paints and other plastics including PVC, a material widely used in vinyl flooring.

Why should we be concerned about indoor air quality?
Floors represent one of the larger surfaces in buildings which puts them near the top of the list for concern when health and indoor air quality are being assessed.

In a publication titled ‘Breathing Easy’ Mary Sweeting, published research relating to indoor air quality and pollution in schools, and its effects on students.

‘The quality of air we breathe is fundamental to our health. A World Health Organisation report in 2018 highlighted how pollution can have a particularly adverse impact on children, whose lungs are still developing, with the UK having the highest prevalence of childhood asthma among all European countries.’

(Architype, Oct 2020 https://www.architype.co.uk/blog/author/mary-sweeting/);
The document highlighted the need for research and careful consideration of the materials used in our interior spaces because of the implications for people’s health.

As well as the substances that can be emitted from the floor, any wider assessment of the material itself must include its ability to harbour dust or to shed particles as it ages.

Some synthetic materials such as PVC contain plasticisers that make the material flexible and there have been concerns about plasticisers migrating from the floor surface into human skin. The maintenance process may also influence indoor air quality by way of emissions from cleaning products.

In the event of a fire in the building the floor will emit smoke and fumes as it burns; some more dangerous than others, and it is often the case that natural materials can be a better choice that man made ones.

Consider also any emissions that may result from stripping up and disposing of the floor at the end of its life. Other indoor air quality issues can relate to the ventilation in the building and accumulation of C02, and this is something that is included the Passivhaus design approach. Furthermore, the occupant’s perception of the indoor environment may be affected by temperature and humidity, as will the amount of control they have of heating and ventilation systems.

It’s clear there are many factors that affect the way the user of a building can feel about the ‘quality’ of the indoor space they occupy, but for the discussion here I’ll talk about what can broadly be called emissions from the material itself, and these take several forms. The focus on VOCs has come about because these substances are often associated with causing cancer.

‘As VOCs have been linked to carcinogenicity in humans, data from the research has reinforced the need for architects to specify natural non-toxic materials that will limit our exposure to pollutants.’

(Mary Sweeting, Architype, Oct 2020; ‘Breathing Easy’ https://www.architype.co.uk/blog/author/mary-sweeting/ )

If you search on the internet for ‘PVC flooring concerns’ or something similar you’ll find extensive discussion about the properties of PVC/vinyl flooring; and you’ll also notice these issues aren’t new. The main concerns are summed up in the quote below from The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products:

‘In construction, there has been a focus on the potential health effects of the use of stabilisers and additives in PVC, which is used in pipes, windows and flooring. Some additives are now no longer used. These ‘legacy additives’ can also potentially cause issues for recycling. A report by Perkins+Will investigated the potential health hazards of PVC. There may also be issues for human health, from the burning of plastics’
(The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products; Plastics in Construction https://asbp.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Intro-guide-v2-April-21.pdf)

With regard to dust, the carpet industry has claimed, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, that a carpet promotes indoor clean air because it will trap dust in its fibres, which results in a reduction of the amount of airborne dust in the building at the level occupants breathe the air.

While I’m in no position to dispute this, I would ask if the age of the carpet, the type/structure of the carpet, patterns of use and the way it’s maintained may have a strong bearing on the amount of airborne dust associated with it.

Although a carpet may behave as a dust-retainer, the carpet itself will be a source of dust as a result of it shedding fibres and degradation of any synthetic fibres into fine particles. D

isposal of high volumes of dust-laden carpets at end-of-life will also need careful consideration if contamination of land and watercourses is to be avoided.

During the service life of the floor, you should also consider long-term VOC emissions that may arise from any plastic fibres, adhesives and the like the carpet may contain.

By comparison, substituting this for a natural material eg, hardwood, natural textile, or stone, provides the client with a floor low in VOCs, and for smooth floor finishes, one that will render the surface almost dust-free if regularly cleaned.

It can also, be disposed of cleanly, recycled or repurposed at the end of that particular stage of its life. I suggest also that humans have an affinity with natural materials such as wood, stone, and the like, and this enhances their perception of their indoor environment in a way that synthetic materials don’t achieve.

What can we do about the problem?
Of all the issues related to indoor air quality VOC emissions probably has the greatest amount of attention as far as certification and assessment schemes are concerned.

This may well be driven by the number of UK projects that are BREEAM assessed, and in the US the WELL assessment scheme provides a similar platform.

In the UK BREEAM publishes a list of recognised certification bodies, which includes many international accreditations. From experience I can provide a few examples of VOC emissions test certificates that are BREEAM approved.

  • DICL – The Danish Indoor Climate Labelling Scheme. This measures VOC emissions from the product over a 30-day period, from new. A good outcome for the test will show a downward trend in emissions over that period. For certain categories of material, the scheme also measures the amount of dust and particles the material produces.
  • CDPH Emissions Certificate; from the Californian Department of Public Health and based on California Specification 01350. Similar to the DICL this scheme measures VOC emissions at intervals over a 14-day period. This scheme is approved by the WELL building assessment scheme in the US.

Clients, government, and the construction industry have long been aware of these issues, but the adoption of specific policies is gathering pace. A key policy for us in the flooring industry is the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge. This was implemented in January 2021 and includes specific targets for health and wellbeing including limits for C02, VOCs and formaldehyde.

Much of the change has been client-driven, for example Google and US healthcare consortium Kaiser Permanente have adopted PVC avoidance policies in their large property portfolios.

Perkins+Will, a UK architectural practice employing about 1,000 architects has included PVC in its precautionary list of substances for which to seek an alternative. It has published a white paper; ‘Healthy Environments: What’s New (and What’s Not) With PVC’ (http://research.perkinswill.com/articles/healthy-environments-whats-new-and-whats-not-with-pvc/

The report goes into considerable detail about hazards associated with manufacture of PVC how it behaves in service (eg migration of plasticisers, degradation into microplastics in the long term), the difficulties of disposal and the fact old PVC flooring is virtually impossible to recycle.

In recent years manufacturers have begun to develop alternative, less hazardous ingredients, and some but by no means all the past concerns have been addressed. The fact old PVC floors may contain hazardous substances such as PCBs presents problems for safe disposal, and this is likely to be the situation for some time.

The manufacturer’s task is sometimes not easy though, as any reader of my Advice columns in CFJ will know, when I talked about product certifications and ‘greenwashing’.

It’s possible many companies have been wrong-footed by the fact questions are now being asked about the health implications of products they’ve been selling for many years without the slightest query being raised.

In some cases, though the health implications have been known about for a long time, and it’s only because of the heightened focus on the environment and people’s wellbeing that has now forced those companies to act.

In the short-term at least, companies will inevitably find it far quicker to create a new environmental profile through marketing and PR than to change their manufacturing processes to provide healthier products.

At this stage of the game clients and designers need to learn quickly how to ask the right questions and to get to the hard facts, rather than being distracted by eye-catching environmental image-building.

Concerns about indoor air quality are inseparable from concerns about the environment as both relate closely to human health and wellbeing, and the way we use materials and resources.

In my day-to-day work increasing numbers of customers ask about emissions from our floors. It’s good to be able to reassure them in relation to solid hardwood floors. I’d go as far as to say that customers are often quite fearful of the possible effects of chemicals, especially where children are concerned or where an occupant is known to have sensitivity or allergies to certain substances.

For most flooring applications there are safe floor finishes available which can be easily substituted for the ones that have the potential to damage human health, so why take the risk? Currently of course there is an established market for synthetic floors, but I have seen signs that designers are beginning to take stock and question what they have habitually specified for so many years.

As awareness of these issues increases larger clients, property owners, designers and their professional bodies are likely to become more selective about their choices and more concerned about the effects their choices have upon people’s health.

I think we’ll see a continuation of the trend towards natural materials such as timber and stone and the like, simply because these materials are usually better for human health and manufacturers have a good environmental story to tell, with independent certification to back it up.
www.junckers.co.uk

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