Vinyl Flooring: Is Less Bad Any Good?

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The color schemes of iQ vinyl flooring are designed to match those of Ecolibrium, Johnsonite's NSF-332 Platinum certified wall base.

Photo: Johnsonite

By Martin Solomon

Vinyl may be the most common resilient flooring used in buildings due to its low upfront cost and durability, but green builders have tried to steer clear of it because of toxicity concerns throughout its life cycle. Now Johnsonite’s homogeneous iQ flooring line, available in both sheet and tile, is getting some notice as the only vinyl flooring to achieve Platinum certification under the NSF-332 standard for resilient flooring. To get there, Johnsonite has made strides in addressing many of the health and environmental issues associated with vinyl flooring. Do Johnsonite’s efforts, and the Platinum certification, allow the iQ (for “intelligent quality”) line to transcend the “vinyl” label? We have some doubts.

A huge issue with most vinyl flooring is the use of petroleum-based phthalate plasticizers. Commonly used phthalates are endocrine disruptors and reproductive and developmental toxicants. Emerging evidence also links phthalates to respiratory problems, such as asthma. Earlier this year, Tarkett (the international parent of Johnsonite) announced that phthalates will be removed from all of Johnsonite’s vinyl flooring (see “Phthalate-Free Vinyl Flooring One Step Closer to Mainstream,” EBN March 2012). In most of the iQ lines, the phthalate plasticizers have been replaced by a synthetic stand-in, but in iQ Natural the replacement is a plant-based plasticizer formulated by Tarkett from castor oil. As a result, 15% of iQ Natural is biobased content. Although stepping away from petroleum-based products is a good move, biobased products are not a panacea, and they come with their own issues (see “Biobased Materials: Not Always Greener,” EBN May 2012). Johnsonite didn’t provide EBN with more specifics on the chemicals involved in these plasticizers, so we can’t say anything about their relative safety.

Chemical emissions are another issue with vinyl flooring that Johnsonite is attempting to address. All lines of Johnsonite’s iQ flooring are Floor Score-certified to meet stringent CDPH Standard Method emission levels for VOCs. According to Diane Martel, vice president of sustainable strategies and planning at Tarkett, the company aims to reduce total VOC emissions to 100 mcg/L3, and ultimately to 20 mcg/L3, for all its flooring products.

Johnsonite has also addressed the toxic emissions typically associated with maintenance of vinyl flooring. Most commercial vinyl flooring products have a wear layer on top that needs to be stripped and reapplied on a regular basis. This maintenance routine releases VOCs into indoor air and costs the facility time and money. Johnsonite’s iQ, on the other hand, has no wear layer, and the company claims that no regular stripping and waxing are needed; instead, the regular maintenance routine for iQ flooring is cleaning with an agent that works by emulsifying built-up oils, followed by dry-buffing to smooth the surface of the flooring and prevent dirt from collecting. As part of the NSF-332 certification process, Johnsonite submitted ASTM testing to prove iQ’s durability, but a case study distributed by Johnsonite provides additional insight about an aesthetic tradeoff. The flooring doesn’t have the same shine as a freshly waxed vinyl floor, so doctors and nurses at the Alliance Community Hospital in Ohio initially thought that the iQ vinyl flooring looked dirty.

The major environmental issue that iQ flooring doesn’t address is polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and its impacts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the manufacture of PVC is one of the largest sources of dioxin. Dioxins are persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals as well as carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. Dioxins, along with other PBTs, heavy metals, and carcinogens, are released not only during manufacture but also in landfills at the end of the flooring’s life, where landfill fires can release huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the earth, air, and water. While Johnsonite has addressed several concerns with vinyl flooring, until these issues are resolved, a major environmental drawback to vinyl flooring will remain.

Most iQ styles are available in sheet or tile, though iQ Natural is only available in sheets. Sheets are 6'-6" wide and 82'-7" long, and tiles are 24" square. The overall thickness of the flooring is 0.080" (2 mm), and it is available in dozens of color options. One of the recommended adhesives, Johnsonite’s #925 resilient flooring adhesive, is CRI Green Label Plus-certified to be low-emitting.

Certification to NSF-332 requires compliance with several prerequisites; most significantly, these prerequisites require full disclosure of recipes and processes used in manufacturing, and points are offered based on avoidance and reduction of toxic ingredients.

Johnsonite, like most companies, does not share its NSF-332 scorecards—making it impossible to know how Johnsonite exceeded the minimum requirements to earn Platinum for iQ. Using biobased materials and avoiding phthalates certainly helped, but NSF-332 also places a lot of emphasis on corporate practices. While laudable, these don’t necessarily affect what is a top concern for many: the content of the flooring rolling off the production line. Johnsonite has made significant strides in reducing the environmental impact of vinyl flooring, but it is still working around the edges of the problem instead of solving it directly.

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July 30, 2012