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The Right Chemistry

Home Depot leads chemical cleanup of flooring

Lowe’s, Lumber Liquidators, and Menards are also phasing out PVC rife with lead, cadmium and phthalates.

This year, four of the nation’s biggest home improvement and flooring retailers announced policies to phase out toxic phthalates in vinyl PVC flooring by the end of this month. Home Depot, Lowe’s, Lumber Liquidators and Menards adopted these policies, driving a major multi-billion dollar market shift away from vinyl laden with phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make vinyl plastic soft and flexible.

These four policies are a major accomplishment for our Mind the Store campaign, which has been challenging major retailers to tackle phthalates and the other Hazardous 100+ Chemicals of High Concern in their supply chains.

Together, these retailers’ actions will have a huge impact on getting phthalates out of flooring in homes, a top end market use for phthalates globally. They sell over $10 billion of flooring annually. Their actions are featured in a series of new market transformation success stories released this week.

Big retailers driving phthalates out of flooring

To its credit, the Home Depot was the first retailer to develop a public policy to eliminate phthalates in flooring.  Safer Chemicals Healthy Families’ Mind the Store campaign worked in partnership with the Home Depot for nearly a year to develop its policy, along with the Healthy Building Network, Environmental Health Strategy Centerthe Ecology Center and Clean Production Action. The company instructed its suppliers to eliminate all added phthalates (also known as ortho-phthalates) from all vinyl flooring by the end of 2015.  

This is a significant as Home Depot is not only the largest home improvement chain in the United States, but the largest worldwide. According to one story, "Total flooring sales accounted for over 7 percent of Home Depot’s $83.2 billion total revenues in 2014, or almost $6 billion, a 4 percent increase from the year before." As of their first quarter of 2015, Home Depot had accomplished 85 percent of the phase-out.

We unveiled Home Depot’s policy in a new report co-released with the Ecology Center’s  In the report we surveyed leading home improvement retailers to assess whether they had adopted policies to eliminate phthalates in flooring. The survey found, at the time, that Home Depot was far ahead of its competitors by requiring its suppliers to eliminate ortho-phthalates.

Home Depot’s actions have resulted in a tremendous ripple effect throughout the flooring supply chain and retail sector.

Less than one week after we released our report and an accompanying online campaign that we launched, Lowe’s also adopted a policy to eliminate phthalates in their flooring by the end of this year. This is significant as Lowe’s is the second largest home improvement retailer in the country, and its sales of flooring "represented $3.2 billion in sales for Lowe’s last year, or 6 percent of its $56 billion total revenues."  

Just a few months later, Menards, the third largest home improvement chain in the country, announced it also would stop selling vinyl flooring containing phthalates after we launched a similar campaign.

Lumber Liquidators first to ban contaminated vinyl scrap plastic

More recently, Lumber Liquidators leapfrogged the competition by also banning the use of vinyl plastic scrap in flooring, becoming the first major retailer to publicly adopt a policy of this kind. The company also has set restrictions on lead to 100 parts per million, to ensure contaminated vinyl scrap plastic is not reintroduced into flooring by its suppliers.  

It also joined Home Depot and other retailers in setting a timeframe for eliminating phthalates in flooring. The company has committed to regularly commission independent laboratory testing by Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)-certified laboratories to monitor compliance. This is massive as Lumber Liquidators is the largest dedicated retailer of flooring in the U.S. with over $1 billion in sales.  

Will other retailers join Lumber Liquidators in banning contaminated vinyl plastic scrap? We hope so. It’s the right thing to do — especially if the emerging circular economy is to reduce toxic hazards and avoid perpetuating them.

Vinyl scrap plastic's contaminants

Lumber Liquidators' new policy came after testing by the Ecology Center’s project and a report by the Healthy Building Network found that the vinyl scrap plastic is often contaminated with not only phthalates but also lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants and possibly PCBs. In at least 69 percent of the floors’ inner layers tested from six key retailers, lead was present at elevated concentrations. Testing revealed lead levels as high as 10,000 ppm and cadmium at 20,000 ppm. 

The testing was released in the Healthy Building Network report Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products (PDF), which found "legacy toxic hazards are being reintroduced into our homes, schools and offices in recycled vinyl content that is routinely added to floors and other building products. Legacy substances used in PVC products, like lead, cadmium, and phthalates are turning up in new products through the use of cheap recycled content." The contamination results from the global trade in plastic waste, often recovered from the wire and cables from old computers and other electronics.

This comes at a time when the European Union is also debating whether to allow recycling of plastics that are contaminated with the phthalate DEHP.

Toxic chemicals widespread in vinyl flooring

Testing by also found that most vinyl flooring tested contained toxic phthalates, a number of which have been banned in children’s products since 2009. The flooring samples tested were purchased from major home improvement retailers including Lumber Liquidators, Menards and Ace Hardware. Researchers found that 58 percent of vinyl flooring tiles tested contained phthalates. Over half of the samples tested contained multiple plasticizers.

Phthalates are hazardous to human health. They can migrate out of flooring, get into the air we breathe and easily make their way into our bodies. A growing body of credible scientific evidence (PDF) has linked exposure to phthalates to serious threats to human health including asthma, harm to male reproductive organs, brain development and the immune system.  

Ten years of biomonitoring data gathered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows near universal exposure to most phthalates in a representative sampling of Americans. 

Safer substitutes are widely available

What’s particularly significant is that these retailers are tackling phthalates (ortho-phthalates) as a group of chemicals, instead of replacing one phthalate with another phthalate plasticizer.  

DINP is the phthalate most commonly used in flooring. While some chemical industry representatives have argued that some phthalates such as DINP are safe, the evidence (PDF) supports the conclusion that the entire class of phthalates is problematic, DINP cannot be considered a safer alternative to other phthalates and that safer non-phthalate plasticizer alternatives to phthalates in vinyl flooring (and other products) are widely available.

A comprehensive assessment by the Healthy Building Network found six phthalate-free alternatives for flexible vinyl building products that are functionally equivalent, commercially available, and safer than DINP. The report "Phthalate-free Plasticizers in PVC" (PDF) gave preference to two bio-based alternatives and found all six phthalate-free plasticizer alternatives profiled had a safer environmental health profile than the phthalate DINP. PVC-free flooring options are even more preferable and increasingly available, such as linoleum, which has a safer environmental health profile (PDF) compared to PVC.

More comprehensive chemicals management needed

These retailer actions are a big step in the right direction, but they shouldn’t stop there. Phthalates can be found in numerous other products and are not the only chemicals of high concern found in products sold by home improvement and flooring stores.

Retailers need to not only eliminate some of the worst of the worst chemicals such as phthalates, but develop more comprehensive programs for managing chemicals. Tools such as our Hazardous 100+ List of Chemicals of High Concern, the BizNGO Principles for Safer Chemicals and the Chemical Footprint Project can provide a roadmap to help transform the retail sector to an even more sustainable one.  

In the meantime, we can all breathe a big sigh of relief that the flooring sold by top retailers will be healthier come Jan. 1.

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