Flooring and floor coverings are subject to physical abuse from feet and heavy objects, and because they’re the lowest spot in a room, they tend to collect dirt, moisture, and other contaminants.
A good flooring material should be very durable—to reduce the frequency of replacement—and it should be easy to clean. At the same time, softer surfaces may be preferred for reasons of comfort, noise absorption, and style, setting up a potential conflict in choices. Raw material and manufacturing impacts must also be considered with many types of carpeting and other floorcoverings.
Carpet systems, including carpet pads and adhesives, have been identified by the EPA as a potential source of indoor air pollution. Testing and monitoring are ongoing; the Green Label and more-stringent Green Label Plus programs of the Carpet and Rug Institute help prevent the most severe instances of toxic off-gassing from new carpet. High-end commercial carpets tend to be more chemically stable than inexpensive residential-quality carpets. Some manufacturers are willing to provide detailed air-quality testing data on their products.
Carpets may also contribute to air quality problems by trapping pollutants and moisture, and damp carpeting can provide a medium for growth of mold, mildew, and dust mites.
Flexible-foam carpet padding frequently contains brominated flame retardants (BFRs). These compounds, chemically similar to PCBs, are raising health concerns because they are being found in human blood and breast milk worldwide, and there is evidence of adverse health effects. BFRs from carpet padding can be released into the living space, especially as the carpet padding ages. In residences, hard flooring surfaces with area rugs, which can be thoroughly cleaned, are often preferable to wall-to-wall carpeting.
Wood and bamboo flooring
Hardwood flooring from certified well-managed forests may be an excellent environmental choice. Other hardwoods come from forestry operations that may not be environmentally responsible. Due to the sensitivity of the ecosystems in which they grow, tropical hardwoods, in particular, should be avoided unless certified to Forest Stewardship Council standards, which involves third-party evaluation and monitoring of sustainable forestry practices.
Reclaimed and recycled wood flooring milled from the large timbers of old structures, trestle bridges, or “sinker logs” is another option.
Fast-growing bamboo is manufactured into hardwood-type strip flooring by a number of Southeast Asian companies, offering an intriguing alternative to standard hardwood. Very-low-formaldehyde products are now entering the marketplace, and at least one manufacturer claims to be formaldehyde-free.
Ceramic and porcelain tile have a high embodied energy, but their durability makes them environmentally sound in the long run. Some high-quality ceramic tile incorporates recycled glass. Regionally produced stone flooring is a good natural finish when sealed with low-toxic sealers.