Is it safe to remove vinyl flooring while I'm pregnant? What's the best material to replace it?
You are wise to question the toxicity of vinyl floor removal for you and your new baby. Many older vinyl floors contain asbestos. Unless you are certain that your vinyl flooring is a non-asbestos-containing material, you should presume it contains asbestos.
The Resilient Floor Covering Institute has published a booklet addressing the safe removal of resilient flooring. This document also provides alternatives to removing the flooring (i.e., installing new flooring over the existing vinyl). Before you remove the kitchen vinyl, I would suggest you have the floor tested. If asbestos is present, you will need to hire an asbestos removal specialist.
Even if there is no asbestos present, I would still recommend sealing off the kitchen with plastic and using a fan to remove dust. Upon completion of the work, the room should be thoroughly cleaned. A similar strategy should apply to the bedrooms where you are removing carpet.
For your new flooring, you have a wide variety of options. Although few products are completely nontoxic, many products are very low-VOC and work great in kitchens and children's bedrooms. It really depends on what look you want to achieve. For your kitchen, you may also need to take into consideration the flooring in adjacent rooms.
My favorite choices are reclaimed wood with a nontoxic water-based finish and cork made with low-VOC binders and sealers. Reclaimed wood is salvaged from a previous use. Most of this wood originally came from large old-growth trees, which provide a wood with superior strength and durability. Additionally, the wood has a narrower grain, which creates a very rich look. Reclaimed wood generally has a patina of age. This patina allows everyday wear and tear to "blend in" with the flooring. Over time, wood can also be sanded and refinished. The benefits of wood flooring are its warmth, versatility, and timeless beauty; the drawbacks can be availability and cost.
Cork is a rapidly renewable resource made from the bark of the cork-oak tree. It is naturally mold- and mildew-resistant and provides a thermal and acoustic barrier (great for kids' rooms). It also feels soft underfoot. Although many people opt to install carpet in bedrooms, I believe cork is a great alternative due to its warmth and resilience. Cork is also easy to clean and does not provide a haven for dust and dirt. The floating tongue-and-groove cork floors can often be installed over existing flooring (allowing you to leave your kitchen vinyl in place, if appropriate). There are many manufacturers of cork; make sure you find flooring that uses low-VOC glues and sealers, such as Natural Cork.
Although wood and cork can be installed in a kitchen, both of these flooring options can be damaged by standing liquids, sharp cutlery, etc. A durable option for a kitchen is ceramic tile with high recycled content. In general, tile can withstand more abuse. A few options for ceramic tile include Terra Green Ceramics and Crossville's Ecocycle. Keep in mind that grout can stain easily and can harbor germs. To minimize grout, choose larger tiles and have the tile installed with narrow grout joints. It is also important to seal the grout with a low-VOC sealer.
For more information:
Read GreenHomeGuide's Buyer's Guide to Green Flooring for information about other flooring choices. Also, GreenHomeGuide's "8 Tips for Selecting Healthy and Environmentally Sound Flooring" describes a technique called "programming" to help you organize the decision-making process.
Build It Green offers fact sheets that outline various floor types, installation considerations, and maintenance issues.
Greenguard Environmental Institute offers a list of floor coverings that are certified to have "low emissions."