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Lumber Liquidators 'Stands by Every Plank.' Should You?

Allegedly tainted flooring has left Lumber Liquidators customers feeling as if the rug has been pulled out from under them.
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Allegedly tainted flooring has left Lumber Liquidators customers feeling as if the rug has been pulled out from under them.

A CBS ‘60 Minutes’ report Sunday said some of the company’s Chinese-made laminate floorboards contained unsafe levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Lumber Liquidators said Monday that it “stands by every plank” of its flooring and that ‘60 Minutes’ used an improper testing method.

Caught in the middle are potentially thousands of consumers, who can’t decide whether their flooring is safe, or they should have it ripped out and replaced, a costly proposition.

Many consumers took to the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts with questions and concerns. “Formaldehyde is present in certain LL products and for those products, the levels are safe,” Lumber Liquidators said in response to a customer’s query on Twitter.

“Testing cited by 60 Minutes is not right,” it said in response to another.

When asked for additional detail, a spokesman referred to an earlier statement that said, “Some of the testing cited by 60 Minutes was conducted based on sample preparation methods that have not been independently verified by an accredited standards organization and do not reflect the manner in which the product will be used in the home.”

Some of the data cited by CBS came from Global Community Monitor, an environmental nonprofit that filed suit against Lumber Liquidators over its formaldehyde levels. Its suit said that all of the Chinese-manufactured samples it had tested exceeded formaldehyde limits, and that tests were conducted “using a variety of different methodologies, and different samples… with different sample preparations and surfaces covered to understand exposures both during and after installation.”

Testing followed protocol

CBS said the testing it had performed on behalf of ‘60 Minutes’ followed the protocol set by the state of California. That state’s formaldehyde regulations, known as CARB 2, are the strictest in the country and will be mirrored by nationwide regulations expected to go into place this year. CBS also had the labs administer the California Department of Public Health test, which measures the concentration of formaldehyde off-gassing from the laminates.

To test the floorboards for CARB compliance, the outer layer or layers of material such as veneer are removed to expose the core, which is where formaldehyde-containing glue would be used.

“The method of preparing the sample [entails] removing what’s not composite,” said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. “If it’s laminate, removing the laminate… You have to take all of those materials off.”

“The CARB regulation very specifically requires that if you’re fabricating a laminated floor you test for compliance by removing the face,” Kip Howlett, president of the Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association, a trade group for domestic producers and one of the labs that tested samples for CBS. “CARB has a very specific method… We removed the face according to the CARB method and tested the underlying core.”

CBS found a single sample out of 31 that came from across the country — Virginia, Florida, Texas, Illinois and New York — in compliance. Many samples had formaldehyde levels many times over California’s legal limit.

“If I had to borrow money to do it, that’s what I’d do. I wouldn’t expose my family to it.”

To replace or not to replace?

Denny Larson, executive director of Global Community Monitor, advocated that customers rip up and replace affected floors, even if doing so will put a strain on their finances. “If I had to borrow money to do it, that’s what I’d do,” he said. “I wouldn’t expose my family to it.”

“We want them to remove every single board at their cost,” Larson said. “It was sold to people on a false claim that it was compliant.”

Homeowners who don’t relish breaking out a pry bar and pulling up their floors (or having a professional do it) can take these other steps:

  • ŸCheck to see if your floor is affected. Global Community Monitor has on its website a list of the products that were found to have high levels of formaldehyde.
  • ŸSince the formaldehyde levels in the Lumber Liquidators samples varied and emissions decrease over time, the next step should be determining how much of the chemical is in their floorboards. “If I were a consumer and I had questions… I’d probably get a test done,” Howlett said. Homeowners could test the wood itself if they have any left over or conduct an air quality test. The Consumer Product Safety Commission does caution that there’s no national certification for air-quality professionals and air quality test kits may yield unreliable results. A 2013 report about formaldehyde gives advice about how to find a reliable provider.
  • ŸPutting a buffer between your family and the chemical can help. “Unlaminated or uncoated (raw) panels of pressed wood products will generally emit more formaldehyde than those that are laminated or coated,” the CPSC report said. The agency recommended sealing surfaces not already laminated or coated — and check to make sure the sealant doesn’t contain formaldehyde, either.
  • ŸCalifornia’s Air Resources Board recommends improving ventilation. “Proper ventilation, such as opening up windows, bringing fresh air through a central ventilation system, and running exhaust fans, will expedite formaldehyde off-gassing,” it said in an FAQ on formaldehyde in the home.
  • ŸAvoid warm, moist conditions, which increase the release of formaldehyde. “Keeping the temperature and humidity low, such as by using an air conditioner in hot summer months and using a dehumidifier to draw the moisture out of the air when humid, may help decrease the amount of formaldehyde that off-gasses,” the ARB said.