Science Is Deciding Factor as Home Depot Bans Toxic Flooring

May 12, 2015

The Home Depot announced in April that it would phase out use of phthalates in its vinyl flooring products due to mounting scientific evidence that the chemicals are harmful to health.

Scientists at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health were among the first in the United States to take a close look at phthalates. In a series of studies beginning in 2005, they uncovered serious health consequences in children exposed to the chemicals before birth, from asthma and IQ deficits to behavioral and motor difficulties.

A paper published this past February in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology documents elevated concentrations of one phthalate in the air of New York City apartments with vinyl flooring and in the bodies of children living there. The Mailman School scientists found that exposure during childhood to this same phthalate was associated with child lung inflammation and exposure during pregnancy with risk of childhood asthma and other respiratory problems and adverse neurodevelopment. Manufacturers use phthalates to make flooring pliable; the chemicals off-gas over the entire lifecycle of the product.

Robin Whyatt, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences who has led much of the Mailman School’s research into phthalates over the last 10 years, is encouraged by the Home Depot announcement. “It shows research can make a difference,” she says. “Consumers are concerned, and industry will listen to that.”

In 2011, Consumer Product Safety Commission banned six phthalates in children’s toys. The move was an important first step, but it is the period before birth that most worries scientists. While the move by Home Depot could reduce prenatal exposures, plenty of other phthalate sources remain: your car, shower curtain, cosmetics, air fresheners—even cheese and butter, likely from plastic tubing used in milking machines.

Labeling, Better Regulation Needed

Pam Factor-Litvak, associate professor of Epidemiology and author of a 2014 paper linking phthalates with IQ deficits at age 7, says better product labeling is needed. “Right now the consumer doesn’t know which products have phthalates unless they do research on the Internet,” says Factor-Litvak. “Many people won’t bother.”

Home Depot hasn’t announced what will replace the unhealthy flooring and what chemicals the products will contain. “We need additional monitoring to see what’s being substituted,” says Robin Whyatt. “Until there are laws in our country that require testing before a chemical is on the market, there are no guarantees the substitute will be any safer.”

Whyatt, Factor-Litvak, and colleagues continue to study the health effects of phthalates in a cohort of several hundred New York City mothers and children recruited in the mid-1990s. “Plenty of research is still needed to characterize the sources and pathways of exposure, understand the health effects, and see if they persist as the children grow up,” says Whyatt. “The big question now is what happens in adolescence and beyond.”

While Whyatt understands that the problem of phthalates is far from over, she feels Home Depot deserves a lot of credit. “They took a look at the evidence, and they took action.” Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an advocacy group that found evidence of the chemicals in the retailer’s flooring products, also played an important role.

On the other hand, in the time it took Home Depot to phase out phthalate flooring, “millions and millions of women and children have been exposed to the chemicals from flooring and other sources,” Whyatt says. What’s really needed is a better regulatory system. This would be in the interest of companies like Home Depot’s competitor Lowe’s, which consumers may now see as inattentive to their health concerns—a perception that could translate into lost sales. Says Whyatt, “Having a regulatory system that people trust is to the advantage of industry too, and good regulation is the only way to guarantee that pregnant women and their children are protected.”