Floored by Formaldehyde

Since “60 Minutes” aired an expose about some Lumber Liquidators flooring products having illegal and dangerously high levels of formaldehyde, Lumber Liquidators’ stock has plunged, a U.S. Senator has called for a congressional investigation, and millions of homeowners are concerned that the air inside their homes may be polluted. Here are answers to some of the questions you might have about the problem.

What is formaldehyde?

It is a chemical compound — flammable, colorless, but certainly not odorless. It is a VOC, or volatile organic compound; other VOCs you may have heard of are acetone, benzene, and ethylene glycol.

Where is formaldehyde found?

In a liquid solution, it is used for embalming and specimen preservation (Remember your high school biology class?). It is used numerous products, including cleaners, paints, textiles (permanent press), cosmetics, fabric softeners, pesticides, and the pressed-wood products used in cabinets and other home furnishing items.

How is formaldehyde harmful?

Exposure to formaldehyde can cause adverse health effects, particularly respiratory ailments. At high levels it has been linked to leukemia and other cancers.

Is its use regulated?

Yes. Of particular importance with regard to flooring and cabinetry is the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, which was signed into law in 2010 and sets limits for formaldehyde emissions from plywood, medium-density fiberboard and particleboard. The California Air Resources Board has also established emission standards for products sold, used or manufactured in that state. Formaldehyde can be safely used in the manufacture of wood products, but only if used sparingly so that the chemical dissipates quickly.

What’s wrong with Lumber Liquidators’ flooring?

It’s important to note that only some products have been implicated as potentially harmful. They were manufactured in China, and lab tests found levels of formaldehyde that exceeded (in some cases up to 20 times) acceptable limits. The “60 Minutes” report sampled laminate flooring sold in California, Virginia, Florida, Texas and Illinois.

Have people been harmed by formaldehyde in flooring?

ConsumerAffairs is a non-governmental consumer news and advocacy organization. Consumers post product reviews on their website. These are some of the comments placed on ConsumerAffairs.com regarding Lumber Liquidators’ flooring:

  • Recently, I had bamboo flooring from Lumber Liquidators installed… I noted the odor as the installation took place and found it quite peculiar… Within the next 48 hours I realized it was not a temporary odor. I have burning nostrils; my face feels like it is stinging, and I’m having a dull headache.
  • I noticed my eyes burning whenever I was in the room where the flooring had been placed.
  • [T]he fumes were AWFUL – I mean, make your eyes tear and your nose burn awful… I wake up with a burning nose and a headache and my husband’s eyes swell up.

Are consumers filing lawsuits about formaldehyde in flooring?

So far there have been three class-action lawsuits filed, two in California and one in Florida. They allege violations of federal and state laws, false and deceptive advertising and labeling, and violations of expressed and implied warranties. Only one plaintiff has alleged actual physical harm which may be linked to the flooring he purchased, stating: “Mr. Tyrrell began experiencing symptoms that include extreme shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, and incessant coughing and sneezing. Despite repeated medical tests, his doctors have not been able to identify the cause of these symptoms.”

Have there been other situations where formaldehyde was alleged to cause similar problems?

You may recall that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA contracted with a number of manufacturers to provide billions of dollars worth of trailers for residents of Gulf Coast states who were homeless after the storms. Within months, thousands of trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes, flu-like symptoms and respiratory problems. Tests found high levels of formaldehyde in the units, averaging five times what is normally found in modern homes. Some of the hazardous wood products were imported from China. Eventually a federal class action ended in a $42.6 million settlement for about 55,000 residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.

What should we do if we suspect high levels of formaldehyde in our home?

If you experience any of the symptoms of formaldehyde exposure while you are at home but not when you are at work or elsewhere, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) suggests that you ask yourself these questions about your home environment:

  • Have the flooring or cabinets recently been refinished?
  • Has remodeling occurred using pressed-wood products like wall paneling or laminate floors?
  • Have new cabinets, wall coverings, or furniture been installed?
  • Has a wood-burning stove or other combustion source been used?
  • Has an indoor air-cleaner that intentionally generates ozone been used?
  • Have you recently worn new, unlaundered crease-, stain-, or static-resistant clothes?
  • Do you or others smoke indoors?
  • Has your house been tightly insulated recently for energy efficiency?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions and you have re-occurring symptoms, contact your physician and/or state or local health department for assistance.

Should we have formaldehyde tests run on our home?

It is possible to have formaldehyde levels measured, but the CPSC points out that there are no state or federal certification programs for indoor air quality testers unless they’re testing for lead or asbestos. For this reason, you should be wary of unqualified, unlicensed companies and seek input from the health department or EPA. (One of the public relations defenses Lumber Liquidators has launched since the “60 Minutes” segment is that the program’s laboratory testing was deficient.) Do-it-yourself kits for formaldehyde testing are available but may not be reliable.

If we find out that a product in our home emits unacceptable levels of formaldehyde, do we have grounds for a lawsuit?

At the Louthian Law Firm, we have helped many victims of dangerous products. If you believe a wood product in your South Carolina home has polluted the air you and your family breathe, we want to hear your story. Call our Columbia office at (803) 454-1200 for a free, no-obligation evaluation.