Lourdes Salvador's Column
...Co-founder of MCS America discusses the latest Multiple Chemical Sensitivity issues.
Lourdes Salvador volunteers as a writer and social advocate for the recognition of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). She was a passionate advocate for the homeless and worked with her local governor to provide services to the homeless through a new approach she created to end homelessness. That passion soon turned to advocacy and activism for people with MCS and the medical professionals who serve them. She co-founded MCS Awareness in 2005 and went on to found MCS America in 2006. She serves as a partner for Environmental Education Week, a partner for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), and a supporter for the American Cancer Society: Campaign for Smokefree Air.
Welcome to MCS - Time to Look at Your Flooring in a Different Light
by Stephen Collette
For many people who have had MCS for some time, they have slowly made their living space their sanctuary. For those who are newly diagnosed, things are going to be different, and need to be for you to stay as well as possible. That means looking at your home in a different light. This series of articles will walk through the kinds of elements that I look for in a healthy house, and where the potential problems lie within a home. We will focus on the sneaky things that you may have missed in your own process as well.
Flooring is one of the most common renovation projects in any home, second only to painting. It’s also the second most common element changed in a home with someone who has MCS, for the chemicals in some flooring materials typically cause reactions in those with sensitivities. Understanding the materials and options is important to be able to make wise choices when required.
Age and Location
What you have to work with obviously depends on the age of the house and where you are located. In northern climates with basements you will typically have a concrete basement floor, with wood or wood product sub-floor material on the ground and second floors. In southern climates you may have slab on grade with either just concrete finish or a terrazzo. Newer apartments are concrete, while older, smaller ones may have wood floors. So if you are not quite sure what you have because various layers cover it up, the first step is to figuring out what you have. You can try looking down your forced air heating vent if it’s located on the floor. This viewpoint can give you a cutaway section of your floor system and help identify the layers that you do have. If you don’t have that, sometimes stairwells can show the section view of the floor as well. Finally you can go into the basement/crawl (if you don’t have one, you most likely have concrete) and look up between the floor joists to identify the sub-floor.
Removing the Old
If you are taking out old carpet, vinyl, linoleum, or hardwood flooring, be sure to control the dust and debris so that it does not impact your health. Follow the instructions laid out in other articles with respect to setting up a containment and working with a contractor.
If you are pulling up old linoleum or vinyl tiles, specifically but not limited to 9”X9” tiles, they may have asbestos containing materials in them or in the glues holding them down. It’s often times around 2% of the material, and perfectly safe in situ, but if you are pulling it out, then it can in fact be a potential hazard. To be safe and sure, have the floor tiles tested by someone trained or licensed, depending on where you live.
As for refinishing older wood floors, you should also be aware of the potential for lead paint. Anything earlier than 1978 will most likely have the paint. You may run into this when pulling out old wood baseboard and painted wood floors. Have a professional who is trained or licensed as required test the materials in question. If there are ever any questions about safety, always use the precautionary principle, assume the worst, and go action plans that protect the best.
Solid surface means any surface that isn’t fuzzy or fluffy. This is the ideal choice for people with environmental sensitivities as it reduces the dust load of the house. With a solid surface, the house’s natural convective currents collect dust into little bunnies, which hide under furniture and such. These dust bunnies are too heavy to be airborne and, therefore, are not a breathing issue. The same dust load is present in soft surface materials such as carpet except the dust load is spread throughout the room and ultra fine particles are stirred up and can be breathed in. As I tell my wife regularly, dust bunnies are our friends.
Hardwood flooring is the top of the line choice for it’s beauty, warmth, color, and value. It’s typically the most expensive choice as well. Laying down hardwood flooring typically requires professionals or very competent do-it-yourselfers. Ask to take samples home, test them with a sniff test, or whatever method you use to determine if they are tolerable. Most wood flooring comes pre-finished, and this can be good or bad, depending on your sensitivities. If the manufacturer cannot supply you with a material safety data sheet (MSDS) for the finish, then don’t waste your time. There are many out there with third party certification for low VOC finishes, and those are the ones you want to find and start with. Testing is still necessary. If you are not sure with the sample, ask to bring home a whole box of the flooring and open it up to test.
Purchasing unfinished wood flooring allows you the option to cover it with whatever you want, or know you can tolerate. This gives you more control. But, it means your floor is drying in your home, which can be a logistical challenge. And, if you have only sniffed it “finished” and not in the drying/curing stage, a very big deal. Test first, by getting sample jars and finishing something inside your house, not outside or in the garage, as that won’t work unless you have the ability to finish it prior to installation, which most don’t. Ask for the MSDS and test it.
You can save costs on hardwood by asking for “bar grade” wood, which means that it isn’t uniformly pure, but has knots and variations in the color and “character”. I wouldn’t buy any other grade, as this stuff has more natural look and feel than typical wood, and can be quite cheap. You could also ask for leftovers from jobs, if you are not picky at all. There are always little bits left over and if you are patient and scavenge around, you could probably eventually get all types of wood and pieces to make a floor.
Please remember that some people can react to wood, so test it first.
Laminate flooring is basically color photocopied images of wood glued together with formaldehyde based glues on wood dust with a vinyl coating on top. It’s not an ideal choice for people with MCS as the chemicals involved may cause a problem. Not all are made the same, and some may be better than others. But, it would be a lot of legwork as the laminate market is not as forthright with information as other markets.
Linoleum is made from linseed oil, or flax. It’s so natural; you could eat your floor if you had to. It is not vinyl, made from poly vinyl chloride, which is not so natural. Vinyl flooring increases it’s off gassing of plasticizers with age, which is why the edges curl up. Stay clear of vinyl and choose the slightly more expensive, but tremendously durable linoleum, which now comes in sheet goods (rolls) and click style (interlocking) flooring. Some people notice odors with the linoleum as it has natural VOC’s in it. Test first as always.
Cork is a great option as it is soft, cushiony, and a solid surface all in one. It doesn’t soak up water just like it doesn’t soak up wine in a bottle and its great to stand on. Different manufacturers do use different materials to glue it and finish it, so ask first and test it.
Bamboo is a really beautiful material. It can grow up to a foot a day, and is sliced up and glued together and comes pre-finished. Some manufacturers are quite open about what goes into their product, and the lack of VOC’s. Those are the ones worth supporting.
Concrete is standard for many locations and it’s an easy to clean, easy to care for choice with basically no direct health issues. It’s just a tad bland for most. So depending on finances, try coloring it with paint, or stains either by yourself or have a professional do it. Certainly the epoxy route would not be a great idea, but on the cheap you can have some fun. Some stains can make it look like worn leather. There are lots of old natural stain recipes out there such as iron oxide. Always take caution when using such things of course.
If you have terrazzo where you are, enjoy it. It’s really beautiful, and something I wish I could get where I live. It is durable, visually interesting, and part of the house.
Many people with MCS simply go with the tile floor as it’s neutral, durable and adds value to the house. Porcelain is the most common, as it’s properties are completely neutral. Other choices are slate, stone, concrete, earthen tile, etc. Do your research on the material and test it. Try to identify where the material is coming from so that you can learn about what else might be in the ground with it. Uranium is found in granite, for example.
If you have an older wood frame house, you may have large plank tongue and groove sub floor and you could simply tear everything down to that, fix it up and use that, which would save you some money in the long run, look great and add to the house’s character. Remember that typically soft wood was used, such as pine, so the floor will show dings, marks, scratches, and any other life experiences. If you want a pristine floor, soft wood is not a good choice. Remember that if there is paint on it, it could be lead. So, test first.
Soft surface flooring is typically carpet, which many be associated with wall-to-wall. This is the least desirable choice for indoor air quality and those with MCS. There are chemicals in the manufacturing process, typically formaldehyde and Teflon in the finishes, all spun from a petroleum based fibre. If you have to go with carpet, keep it out of the basement, as it acts solely as a sponge down there. Vacuum frequently and vigorously according to Canada Mortgage and Housing to get it clean, and open a window when you do that so the dust gets blown outside, especially if you don’t’ have a HEPA or central vacuum. If you are buying carpet, consider a wool carpet, as it has fewer chemicals in it, typically has a good supply of information on the products ingredients, is tremendously durable, and will outlast any nylon carpet. It’s also quite stain resistant.
Area rugs are a good idea to give you the soft feeling where you need it. Consider natural fibers first and foremost, such as wool, jute, hemp, or others. You can take them outside to air out so the ultraviolet light can bleach out the dust mites. Beat it with a tennis racket (cheaper than therapy). Do this at least once a year. Otherwise have professionals come in and give it a good clean periodically, using safe approved cleaners.
The more chemicals in a finish, the worse it will be. It seems like common sense, but it’s not so common. Urethanes, even water based ones, contain a whole lot of chemicals and can cause serious problems for people. It must say zero VOC on it and ideally be third party certified before even lifting the can off the shelf. Learn all the information on finishes from the MSDS to calling the company and reading online reviews. Oil finishes are a better solution as they are low VOC, typically low odor and can be applied by most people with little skill required. Hemp, Tung, and linseed finishes are good places to start. All have some odor, and may cause reactions for those with sensitivities, so don’t assume anything. You can get oil finishes, pre mixed with beeswax in them and the beeswax settles to the top as the oil is absorbed and gives you a nice hard finish surface. Don’t go mixing up your own cooking oil floor finish without some research and testing, because if the floor oil goes rancid, things won’t be pretty. You can paint a old wood floor to get you by, for little cost. It brightens up space a fair bit and if the floor is old, who cares? The actual finishing of wood isn’t as necessary as some may think. Natural wood is absorptive so it draws in odors as well as moisture, and will release it (moisture that is) when the air is drier. It may ultimately need a sanding to put a finish on it down the road, but if unfinished works for your MCS and no other finish does, enjoy it!
There are a myriad of choices for flooring. It’s overwhelming really. Look around, find something as local as possible, may a local sawmill for example, support the environmental people working to prevent deforestation, and choose something lovely, because you are going to be enjoying it for a very long time.
Stephen Collette is a Building Biology Environmental Consultant and LEED accredited professional, an Energy Star trained evaluator, and has used almost all the green building guidelines in some form or another. Stephen owns Your Healthy House, and is living with his family in Lakefield, Ontario.
For more articles on this topic, see: MCSA News.
Copyrighted 2009 Lourdes Salvador & MCS America