A report by Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Environmental Health says vinyl flooring manufacturers release higher levels of carbon dioxide and toxic pollution than shown in their environmental product declarations (EPDs).
The report, "Flooring's Dirty Climate Secret," also says all PVC flooring sold in the United States — regardless of its origin — was produced using asbestos, mercury and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — toxic chemicals that many people thought have been phased out.
Founded in 1996, CEH is a nonprofit focused on protecting the public from harmful chemicals.
The 52-page report was released to increase awareness of the carbon footprint of materials used in the built environment, point out concerns about material toxicity and call for better information regarding the environmental impacts of common products, according to CEH CEO Michael Green.
"Despite its low cost and slick marketing, PVC flooring harbors a dirty climate secret: manufacturing this flooring releases enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the air and requires some of the most toxic substances known to humans," Green said in a news release. "We all stand on the precipice of an irreversible and catastrophic climate emergency. For that reason, it is time to make PVC flooring a relic of the past."
Meanwhile, in the marketplace, luxury vinyl tile, which looks like wood plank, ceramic or stone, is one of the fastest-growing trends in the flooring industry.
LVT is suitable for high, medium and low foot traffic. The products are easy to install, require little maintenance, have extra cushioning to reduce the impact and provide a soft feel, and offer acoustic properties that absorb more noise than tiles, wood and laminate.
The CEH report contains inaccurate and misleading claims about vinyl flooring manufacturing and the product itself, according to Bill Blackstock, president and CEO of the LaGrange, Ga.-based Resilient Floor Covering Institute.
Founded in 2007, the trade group represents manufacturers of resilient flooring, primarily made of vinyl, and their suppliers.
Blackstock said in an email: "The report aims for sensationalism over accuracy and grossly oversimplifies complex technical issues. The fact remains that resilient vinyl flooring remains the go-to choice for consumers, architects, builders and designers because of the product's demonstrated sustainability benefits and aesthetic appeal."
Under the sustainability tab on the RFCI website, the trade group points to compliance with the volatile organic compound emissions criteria in California as well as third-party certification that rigid core luxury vinyl products have been manufactured to high standards, meet requirements for indoor air quality and rigorous performance, and are free of heavy metals and ortho-phthalates.
RFCI's website also says products with an Affirm certification comply with the NSF/ANSI Standard 332 criteria, which includes environmental, health and wellness, and social impact categories.
The global LVT flooring market is estimated to be worth $10.5 billion in 2022 and is forecast to grow to $21 billion by 2028 with a CAGR of 12.4 percent during this period, according to MarketWatch.com.
The scale of this trade is enormous, the CEH report says, with PVC products made in China becoming the most common flooring sold in the United States. PVC flooring from China accounts for more than 25 percent of all flooring sold in the U.S.
"Over the past decade, these shipments to the U.S. increased by 300 percent and now exceed 5.1 billion square feet per year," the report says. "If each square foot were connected end-to-end, shipments that arrived in 2020 would run 1,040,000 miles: That's enough vinyl flooring to connect Earth to its moon, four times over."
Manufacturers like Tarkett, Mohawk Industries, Shaw Industries and Congoleum are major processors, as is Armstrong Flooring Inc., which recently filed for protection from creditors because of supply chain disruptions and inflationary pressures on transportation, labor and raw materials.
CEH says manufacturing PVC is another problem with an energy-intensive process that emits climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The carbon and chemical pollution created by manufacturing vinyl flooring impacts the planet and endangers workers and fence-line communities, according to Rachael Wein, director of CEH's Built Environment Program.
"Flooring manufacturers, construction industry professionals, designers, influencers and everyday individuals all have a role to play in helping to reduce and eventually phase out the use of PVC-based products in our built environment," Wein said.
The report says flooring manufacturers should immediately adopt policies to phase out the use of asbestos, mercury and PFAS chemicals.
Also, the report recommends consumers and building professionals select "healthier" flooring alternatives like ceramic tile or linoleum, which is made from solidified linseed oil, pine resin, ground cork dust, sawdust and mineral fillers like calcium carbonate on a burlap or canvas backing.