October 2, 2014 11:40 am
Updated: October 3, 2014 9:42 am

High levels of formaldehyde found in Chinese-made floors sold in North America


WATCH ABOVE: A preview for 16×9’s “Liquidating the Forests”

Chinese-made flooring sold in North America has high levels of formaldehyde – a known carcinogen – according to tests done by the Hardwood Plywood and Veneer Association.

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“We went into a retail store and grabbed a sample, tested it and six out of eight flunked,” says Kip Howlett, President of the HPVA, an industry association that represents some Canadian and American flooring manufacturers.

When Howlett started testing these floors five years ago, the levels of formaldehyde were so high, he says some were two to three times over the line.

“It was like emissions that we used to see 30 years ago,” he says.

READ MORE: Russian timber thieves selling wood in North America, environmentalist says

Too much formaldehyde can cause upper throat and nasal cancers as well as leukemia, according to the National Academies of Science.

The U.S. state of California has tough labelling and emission rules to control formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products including floors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to soon be putting out proposed rules that aim to regulate this chemical nationally.

READ MORE: Think that new hardwood floor is made in Canada? Think again

In Canada, there are no similar set of rules. Health Canada, the government agency that regulates formaldehyde, told 16×9 that since 1986 only a voluntary agreement exists between government and industry to limit formaldehyde in wood products. That limit is based on levels set almost thirty years ago, levels that are higher than rules in some U.S. jurisdictions and the European Union.

Canada needs to get stronger rules, says Howlett. “The rules are there to protect people, they’re there to protect the consumer.”

Formaldehyde is used as a cheap glue in the making of laminate and engineered wood floors.

“If you jack up the amount of resin, it allows you to basically take your production rate on your press and increase it by 50 per cent,” Howlett says. “So instead of making a million panels you’ll make a million and a half panels.”

Sascha Von Bismarck works for the Environmental Investigation Agency, an environmental group that’s spent years investigating Chinese wood factories.

“So when we’re looking at any piece of wood that’s glued together, we will go through that section of the factory where the big glue vat is, and we’ll have some initial discussions about how does this process work,”Bismark says. “You immediately then get told about how one can cut corners.”

In July 2014 a lawsuit filed in California against Lumber Liquidators, the biggest flooring retailer in the U.S., claimed that some of the company’s Chinese-made laminate floors had unacceptable levels of formaldehyde. The lawsuit says there were insufficient warning labels on these products.

According to court documents, plaintiffs tested Chinese-made floors which emitted formaldehyde at far higher rates than those manufactured in Europe or North America – on average, Chinese products emitted at 350 per cent the rate of European/North American products.

Lumber Liquidators has denied the allegations and said its flooring “meets relevant environmental standards and undergoes rigorous, independent, third-party testing, including those pertaining to formaldehyde emissions.” The levels of formaldehyde are too low to trigger the need for warning labels under Proposition 65, the relevant California law but some warnings are provided anyways.

16×9’s “Liquidating the Forests” airs this Saturday at 7pm.

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