Is there a concern about formaldehyde or other toxins in either engineered wood or laminate flooring? I am thinking of replacing tile floor.

Asked by connee hanley
Mission Viejo, CA

I live in California and I read there are now some new certifications. Which of these 2 types of flooring would be safest? Also, the tile was laid 30 years ago. Is there a toxin in the adhesive used then that will now be circulated in the air?


Cynthia Phakos

Answered by Cynthia Phakos

Los Angeles, CA

Koffka Phakos Design

September 25, 2012

Let’s start with the existing tile to be removed. You did not mention what type of tile you have, whether it a resilient floor tile or ceramic tile.

There are two concerns with removal.

  • For ceramic tiles, we have been finding that now that we are testing for lead (in paint) we are also finding ceramic tiles with a high lead content, that need to be abated. These are not only the older tiles but also tiles that are more recent possibly coming from China.
  • Another is asbestos, which would be found in resilient tiles and or their adhesive. As your tile floor was installed before 1989, which was when asbestos was first regulated by the EPA, you should have it tested by a certified asbestos testing agency.

Testing agencies now will test for lead and asbestos. For either you will need to hire an abatement company for their removal and disposal. There are companies that just do testing, others that just do abatement and then there are some companies that do both.

Air Quality and Certifications

Regarding certifications, the California Air Resources Board (CARB ) approved an Airborne Toxic Control Measure (ATCM) in April 2007 to reduce formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.

  • As you live in California, the adhesive bonding the floor to the subfloor and adhesives bonding together the wood plies in engineered wood and the laminated flooring material will have to meet the VOC limits set forth in CARB .
  • As this is one of the most stringent codes in the US you can feel confident with a product that you buy in California.

At a minimum, materials must be labeled with the manufacturer’s name, a product lot number or batch produced, a CARB assigned number for the 3rd party certifiers and a statement of compliance to denote that the composite wood product complies with the requirements of the ATCM.

A CARB assigned number is not required if the product is made by using:

  • No Added Formaldehyde (NAF)
  • No Added Urea Formaldehyde (NAUF) or
  • Ultra Low-Emitting Formaldehyde (ULEF)

A floor with any of these designations ensures a low emitting floor.

For more information on CARB read "Are there any hardwood (not bamboo) engineered click floors that have no/low VOC's similar to the bamboo by Teregan or EcoTimber?" a Q&A I answered here on GreenHomeGuide.

Greenguard certification

The Greenguard Certification Program was founded in 2001 with its mission to improve indoor air quality with certified products meeting stringent emissions standards. 

  • The Greenguard website lists all of their certified products which is a very useful site when it comes to product selection. 
  • For example there are 1634 flooring products list and should you select a flooring that is glue-down you can find and adhesive on the site as well.
  • Just make sure to cross check that it complies with CARB.

About engineered wood flooring

Engineered flooring manufacturers first used Urea Formaldehyde adhesives to bond the pressed layers together, which led to high levels of formaldehyde offgassing.

The industry then shifted to a Phenol Formaldehyde Adhesive, which has no harmful chemicals, and had previously used as the bonding agent for marine grade plywood for exterior use. Adhesives have since been developed with No Added Formaldehyde. 

Some of the major brands of engineered flooring that contain little to no formaldehyde emissions are Award, Harris Wood, Mannington, Kahrs and Teragren Bamboo.

Some benefits of engineered wood floors also to be considered are :

  • The hardwoods are used in smaller quantities for the veneer, while the bulk of the material comes from fast-growing plantation trees making them resource efficient. Depending on the thickness of the wear layer they may be refinished.
  • Factory finished flooring has a harder finish coat than what you can apply on the site that will last longer. Also, as it is finished off site you don’t have to consider the IAQ of a finish material that might off-gas.

About laminate flooring

Laminate flooring has gone through the same process of development in its use of non-urea formaldehyde as engineered wood flooring and so there are products available with a comparable indoor air quality.

A laminate floor that meets CARB is Quick Step. As it is a click system no adhesive is required for installation, therefore eliminating another potential source of off-gassing chemicals. It is also made of 74% reused wood chips and so serves another environmental benefit, keeping used wood out of the landfill.

Though a laminate floor might meet your Indoor Air Quality requirements, it does have some negatives:

  • A laminate floor can’t be refinished and so has a limited lifetime.
  • Laminate floors might look like wood, but due to their surface hardness, when you walk on them, they neither feel like nor sound like wood. When selecting materials for a warm, comfortable home, what they feel like and how they act acoustically is as important as what they look like.


For more information:

Read our green flooring backgrounder "Navigating the Flooring Thicket: Find the Greenest Way to Meet Your Needs."

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