Autumn 2014 True Natural Health Magazine – Your Questions Answered
By Roger French
QUESTION: Regarding timber flooring, I have been investigating the best product for health, sustainability, durability and beauty. I have come up with bamboo flooring as the best option so far, but you might suggest something else. I would be very grateful for your suggestions.
Guidance for this question is given in a book by Nicole Bijlsma, Healthy Home, Healthy Family, which is available in the NHS bookshop (her website is www.buildingbiology.com.au). She states that a building biologist will rate a material according to the following:
Natural occurrence – wood, bamboo, hemp, cotton, leather, rock or stone.
Ecological impact – the energy used from source to installation and disposal of waste. Locally sourced, recycled timber rates well.
Thermal properties – the heat insulation effectiveness and heat storage capacity.
Acoustic properties – sound insulation.
‘Breathing’ properties – the ability to allow toxic VOCs to go out of the building and good air to come in. For example, untreated timber is far better for this than timber sealed with polyurethane.
Hygroscopic properties – the ability to absorb and release moisture in order to obtain optimal humidity and prevent mould. For example, untreated timber is much better than concrete.
Health impact – does the material emit toxic chemicals and affect indoor air quality, asthma, etc.
The following information is derived from a variety of sources.
Wood. Wood is unique and renewable. Trees absorb carbon dioxide during their growing cycle, and it remains stored in the wood, thus keeping it out of the atmosphere. At the end of its service life, wood can be recycled or used for firewood.
Hardwood is a natural product of the earth that is constantly being renewed; it is 100 percent biodegradable.
Solid wood has lower carbon dioxide emissions and lower environmental impact than linoleum or vinyl. Wood is eco-friendly – provided it comes from a sustainable plantation, not a native forest.
Wood is considered to be hypoallergenic (low allergy).
Hardwood timbers are durable, insulating and cost effective.
Timber floors are easy to maintain and don’t need toxic chemicals to maintain them. There are now low-toxicity, eco-friendly floor finishes available – and they are easier to maintain. These are safer alternative to the standard solvent-based polyurethanes.
Reclaimed wood comes from mill trimmings and dismantled structures and is even recovered from rivers.
Using recycled hardwoods can help to preserve our native forests and reduce the logging demand on overseas rainforests. It avoids senseless dumping into landfills of reusable material. However, you do need to establish that the wood was never treated with toxic chemicals over the course of its life.
Unlike many other floorings, including carpets, vinyl, tiles and imported plantation timber, recycled timber uses no harsh chemicals in processing.
A common mistake is to assume that laminated flooring is as good as wood flooring. Laminates are made with a printed image that’s glued to fibreboard and then sealed to reduce wear and tear. Laminates are inexpensive, but you can’t refinish them and the glue might release formaldehyde.
Bamboo flooring. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants (it’s actually a grass) with a harvest cycle of just 3 – 5 years making it very renewable. It is water-resistant, and good quality bamboo is very durable. The flooring is available in tongue-and-groove shapes similar to hardwood planks.
Bamboo flooring is generally cheaper than hardwood flooring, but some is made using adhesive that releases toxic formaldehyde, rather than a natural-based adhesive.
Bamboo is not as eco-friendly as it sounds. It is mostly grown in the Pacific Rim, so there can be a significant amount of pollution in transporting it to the manufacturing country and then Australia.
The bamboo flooring industry is based almost entirely in China. In nature this plant fully matures and hardens within 7 years, but bamboo companies typically speed up growth by applying chemical fertilisers and pesticides which harm the environment. Further, bamboo companies clear large sections of natural forests to make way for bamboo plantations, and the repeated harvesting increases erosion.
During manufacture, toxic chemicals are normally used – chemicals which can be harmful to both the environment and health.
Because bamboo flooring is highly vulnerable to scratches and dents and is impossible to refinish, its lifespan is a disadvantage.
In summary, although bamboo is a rapidly renewable resource, the likely poor growing and manufacturing practices and an uncertain product outweigh this advantage.
Coconut. Coconut timber is made from coconut palm trees that are 60 to 80 years old and have ceased to bear coconuts. As with bamboo, there are issues with transport over long distances and the kind of surface treatment.
Cork flooring. Cork is manufactured from the bark of the cork oak tree, which grows back after being harvested and doesn’t harm the tree. As such, it is renewable and sustainable. Cork has excellent heat and sound insulation properties and provides a comfortable, warm walking surface. Cork is resilient and ‘springs back’, preventing imprints due to heavy traffic and furniture (except from stiletto heels!).
This flooring is naturally repellent to mold and mites, but is not suitable for bathrooms as it absorbs moisture. Cork does emit VOCs, but fortunately at low levels. However, it is important to check the finish applied.
The big negative with cork is that it needs another kind of flooring to support it.
Linoleum. This is made from dried and milled flax seeds mixed with other plant materials, such as cork dust, tree resins, wood flour, pigments and ground limestone, with a jute backing. These are all natural materials from renewable sources and are 100 percent biodegradable. However, considerable energy is required for manufacture. As with cork, lino needs another kind of flooring to support it.
Linoleum does not fade, except from wear, and is hypoallergenic and often used by people with asthma and allergies. It is also fire-resistant.
Linoleum is not new to the market; it was replaced by vinyl in the 1940s, but has re-emerged because of its bright range of colours and better eco-friendliness.
The winner. Recycled timber is undoubtedly the winner, provided it has not been chemically treated during its history of use – somehow you would need to check this. Unfortunately, recycled timber can be expensive. Next would come plantation hardwood, followed by bamboo. Lino and cork are good, but are only a topping to another kind of flooring.
A NOTE ON POLYURETHANE FINISHES
The diisocyanates in polyurethane products, particularly in hardwood floor cleaners and finishing products, can create toxic indoor air quality during application. The toxic VOCs released can trigger allergic reactions and even severe asthma attacks, warns the US Environmental Protection Agency.
It is strongly recommended that you vacate the home while a polyurethane finish is being applied. Anyone working with it is strongly advised to prevent inhalation or skin contact.
If polyurethanes are toxic, why are they used? They provide a tough coating on a timber floor which protects the floor from scuffs and moisture and makes it easier to clean.
Although polyurethane is less expensive than other finishes, it is definitely worth paying the extra to have natural finishes – as was detailed in the Summer 2013/14 issue of this magazine, page 4, ‘Natural Paints’.