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Non-toxic Wood Flooring for Project One-Eleven

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By John, Certified Holistic Health Coach

Project One-Eleven is our nontoxic home renovation project. We’re taking an old row house that’s been serving as an office and converting it back into a residence (where you’ll be able to come test mattresses and other Good Stuff!). Because we’re all about the Good Stuff, we will use nontoxic and sustainable products, materials, and processes as much as possible. We’re blogging about the process to share the joys and challenges of taking a non-toxic approach to home renovation.

For step 1 of our renovation project, we decided to restore the original wood floors. Read on for tips on removing old carpets, finishing or refinishing wood floors with nontoxic alternatives to polyurethane, and cleaning up your air quality if you are worried about existing wood floors.

First Dirty Job: Out with the Old Carpet

This hideous, toxic gray carpet covered every inch of the property.
This hideous, toxic gray carpet covered every inch of the property.

Every inch of floor in this house– including stairs–was covered with 30-year-old carpet. Older carpets are not just ugly, they are also extra toxic. They were made and installed with chemicals that have since been found to be unhealthy and banned from more recent production, including perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (which is associated with altered thyroid hormone levels, elevated cholesterol, and ADHD), PBDEs (which are shown to cause disruption of thyroid homeostasis after perinatal exposure), and PCBs (established carcinogens).

Older carpets also have had years to accumulate pounds of dust mites, dirt, pesticides, and other toxins brought in on shoes, feet, and pet’s paws. Please try not to gag when you read this: Carpet can hold up to one pound of toxin-filled dirt per square foot.

The EPA states that 80% of human exposure to pesticides happens indoors. Household dust also contains lead and other heavy metals. Older carpets are so toxic that your chances of being exposed to hazardous chemicals are up to 50 times higher in a carpeted room than outdoors.

nails in floors 111 north lime
Nails for days!
This tool was a life-saver for removing nails.
The Stanley 8-inch nail puller and chisel scraper was a life-saver.

I found a couple of guys on Craigslist to tear out the old carpet and cart it away to a recycling center, but we were left with the unenviable task of removing thousands (seemed like millions) of staples that held down the carpet pad. After my son-in-law and I tried several tools and bloodied our knuckles some, we found the Stanley 8-inch nail puller and chisel scraper. This cool little flat bar saved us days of extra work.

In with the New (Old) Wood Floors

Before After Floor Sanding
You can see on the left what the “before” floor looked like when we took up the carpet.

Most of the floors underneath the carpet are four-inch wide planks of southern yellow pine. They were in rough shape (hence the carpet installation 30 years ago), but I knew from experience that we could revive them if we were willing to live with the “vintage distressed” look. Given the historic charm of the house, it seemed appropriate to restore the original floors, even if they are scarred. We hired a good floor-sanding outfit, and the sanding alone made the floors look so much better! (Check out the picture on the left to see what I mean.)

Non-toxic Floor Finish

Because this is a non-toxic renovation project, we did not use typical floor-finishing products like polyurethane. This type of finish emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as it is being applied and while it is curing (drying). The good news about polyurethane is that once it’s fully cured–after about two to three weeks–it is quite inert and is no longer particularly toxic. So if you are currently living with polyurethane-finished floors, don’t worry; they are unlikely to pose much of a risk.

If, like us, you have some refinishing to do, you want to reduce exposure to VOCs during the process by using a non-toxic alternative to polyurethane. To find such a product, we sought the expertise of Joel at Green Building Supply (they have proven to be such a valuable resource!).

Joel helped us choose Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus, and kindly donated some for this job. We like that Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus is made of natural oils, has no VOCs, and is virtually odorless. A huge bonus, which I know from first-hand experience, it is actually much easier and faster to install than typical polyurethane floor finish. It is finished in one coat and there are no toxic fumes.

My flooring guy was not familiar Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus and is not comfortable installing it. That means that yours truly got to do it!

finishing floor 111 north lime
Yours truly, enjoying the toxin-free floor finishing project.

Are Wood Floors Toxic?

We chose to refinish the existing wood floors in the old home we are renovating. But some of you may be considering an installation of new wood floors and want to make sure you avoid toxins when doing so.

The important thing is to choose true hardwood floors–meaning flooring that’s made from solid wood rather than composite wood (otherwise known as laminate flooring). You probably heard about the scandal involving Lumber Liquidators last year. Basically, the flooring giant was caught selling Chinese-made laminate flooring that far exceeds the legal limits of formaldehyde (a known carcinogen).

If you’re in the market for new wood floors, I would again recommend you contact Joel at Green Building Supply for guidance on choosing and installing non-toxic wood floors.

How to Detox Your Home if You Have Toxic Floors

If you are worried about the existing floors in your home, especially if they may be laminate, you will be glad to hear that there are things you can do to improve your indoor air quality.

  1. Plants. Many common household plants like Boston fern, English Ivy, spider plants, and peace lilies will filter formaldehyde from indoor air.

    Illustration by Graham Goss
    Illustration by Graham Goss
  2. Moso Bags. We’ve got these all over our homes and cars. Moso Bags contain a particular bamboo charcoal that studies show to reduce formaldehyde (and other toxins) from household air.
  3. Ventilate your home. Periodically opening windows to introduce clean air, and keeping indoor temps and humidity low, may help decrease the amount of flooring toxins that off-gas.
  4. Electronic air filter. For truly robust, active filtration, we chose to invest in this air filter.

What’s Next for Our Project

After everything I just told you about carpets, you might be surprised to hear that we will be installing some carpet on a staircase and some landings in this home. This can be done in a with non-toxic carpeting and installation materials, so stay tuned!

But first, I’ll be blogging about wall paints next, and answering one big question: does milk paint really work?

Stay sane until then,

John Goss from Gimme the Good Stuff

P.S. This space is now open! Reserve your stay here and email Suzanne to make an appointment to come test mattresses or purchase select items from our store.


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17 responses to “Non-toxic Wood Flooring for Project One-Eleven”

  1. This blog has been incredibly helpful though I found it a little late for the flooring as we began replacing carpet work hardwood a few weeks ago. We were initially told the wood stain was water based. However, now we find out from the actual workers that it was oil based (specifically Duraseal Quick coat 2 hour penetrating finish). They are now placing 3 coats of polyurethane

  2. We are looking at having our floors done and are hoping for solid wood if the budget allows. Do you know if some brands are better then others or would any prefinished solid wood be ok? Also, what about engineered wood flooring?

  3. We are preparing to install unfinished solid hardwood flooring (well, engineered unfinished in the basement) and finish it with Rubio Monocoat. We have taken out the other flooring, but need to replace the subfloor. What is the healthiest subfloor? Exterior plywood? Advantech?

  4. Hi John,
    I’d love to get your opinion on this…
    https://www.thegreendesigncenter.com/turning-the-tables-on-vinyl/

    It is vinyl, but apparently 2/3 limestone and doesn’t off-gas?? It has popped up on a few sites I trust, but I trust you all the most!

    1. Hi Jackie, Thanks for the great question. Cali Vinyl flooring is a great example of what we call, “Sneaky Stuff”. Their claim is that zero formaldehyde off-gasses from this product. That might sound great but vinyl flooring has never been a serious threat of formaldehyde off-gassing. That’s because solid vinyl flooring does not use any formaldehyde! So it was probably not very challenging to produce test results claiming “zero formaldehyde off-gassing”.
      What is most deceptive about the marketing behind this product is what they don’t say! Vinyl flooring uses lots and lots of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). PVC production releases dangerous pollutants including vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, mercury, dioxins and furans, and PCBs. (all of which are Very Bad Stuff!!)

      Vinyl plastic products expose children and all of us to harmful chemical additives such as phthalates, lead, cadmium and organotins — all substances of very high concern. The disposal of PVC waste in landfills and incinerators release dioxins and furans, which are chemicals that have been targeted for international phase-out by over 170 nations around the world. When PVC burns in accidental fires, dioxin and other dangerous chemicals are released posing deadly hazards to building occupants and firefighters.

      In sum, there is no safe way to manufacture, use, or dispose of this highly hazardous plastic. I suggest finding a safer alternative to anything made using vinyl whenever possible.

      1. John,
        Thank you so very much! I figured anything plastic (much less PVC of all things) would be sneaky. We currently have bamboo flooring from Ecofusion in our bedrooms, but are looking to replace the tile in our main living areas (with two aging pups who occasionally have accidents). We now sleep on latex and have Roma paint on our walls thanks to your family’s work, so we would love your opinion. Thank you for everything you, suzanne, and Maia do. We are HUGE fans at our house, and are often shopping googling “Gimme the good stuff – baby wipes…Gimme the good stuff shampoo.” Thanks again!

  5. Hi John. Thank you for this helpful post! We just bought a new house and are planning to refinish the hardwood floors. I’m having trouble finding someone in my area who has experience using Rubio Monocoat or Pallmann Magic Oil (another stain that appears to be nontoxic and has a bit more sheen, which I like). We’re not up for a do it yourself job, so are back to considering the traditional stains. We’ll have a full month after the floors are done before we move in, and I know you mentioned that after 2-3 weeks the floors aren’t particularly toxic. Are there any concerns after this period of time? I have two little boys who spend a lot of time on the floors and don’t want to take any chances.

    Otherwise, any chance that you know of someone in the New York area (we live in CT) who has experience staining floors using Rubio Monocoat or Pallmann? Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Ryanne,
      You’ve identified a common problem with most nontoxic finishes. There are few installers with experience using these products and they are generally busy enough that they are unwilling to risk trying something new.
      I have personally applied a couple of different nontoxic finishes and they are pretty easy to use but…

      As for the potential dangers of polyurethane…Once the finish dries, the remaining toxins are locked inside. However, they are still being released at a slower rate over time. While water-based polyurethane finish is relatively low in toxins, the problem is that when they are released over a long period, they can build up in the indoor air of the home and present potential health issues for people and pets who live inside the business or residence.

      My advice would be to contact the good folks at Green Building Supply https://www.greenbuildingsupply.com. Tell them we sent you and ask them if they know of any installers in your area. They sell these products so they might know who to recommend.

      Let us know how it goes.

  6. Hi, we are remodeling and putting hickory wood floors on our main level. Since we don’t want the mess and smell of finishing the floors is our house, we are looking at prefinished. The company we have narrowed in on is Chelsea Plank (www.plankflooring.com), it is milled in Michigan and they say the finish has no VOC’s. They said it is a “seven layer UV-cured urethane finish”.
    I’m guessing it shouldn’t off gas once in our home, is that correct? Any questions I should ask before we order?

    1. Tamara, did you move forward with the Chelsea wood floors and if so what were the results. We live in Michigan and this is what we are also looking at.

      Thanks

      Jim

  7. So what do you use to clean your non toxic wood floors?

  8. Hi John,

    You mentioned in a comment above the certain brands of carpet are nontoxic. Could you tell me what exactly I should be looking for?

    1. Hi Agnes,
      John here….
      Earth Weave is the only truly nontoxic carpet brand we have found.

      Some manufacturers make claims about low VOCs or “Green” but neither of those result in true my nontoxic carpet.

      Feel free to contact me directly at john@gimmethegoodstuff.org. I’ll be happy to guide you further.

      Best,
      John

  9. What did you all think of the Rubio Monocoat Oil Plus? Good color? Okay drying time? More or less than regular stain?
    What did your flooring guy think of the finished job?
    How much more is this than regular floor stain? Twice as much?

    1. We love they way the Rubio Monocoat turned out! A small amount goes a long way and unlike typical polyurethane finishes that require at least 3 coats (with sanding in between each coat) the Monocoat is done in 1 pass. As a result, the cost of installation is actually less than polyurethane.
      If you are looking for the glossy look, Monocoat is not for you. It leaves a very attractive natural looking finish…nothing like polyurethane. Again…we love it…and as the installer, I was happy to not have to inhale all those toxic fumes!

      Best,
      John

  10. Hi Sanjana,
    John here…
    There are several types of nontoxic flooring available: certain brands of carpet, cork, linoleum, solid hardwood, and others.
    The right product for you depends on several factors. The first thing to know is: What is your sub-floor? Plywood? Concrete slab? This will determine what types of flooring can be used.

    Feel free to contact me directly if you have more questions.
    john@gimmethegoodstuff.org

  11. so glad to find other moms with the same questions and concerns. I wish we had wood underneath the carpets. I am looking to get rid of carpet and install wood but cannot find affordable but safe non toxic wood (no formaldehyde! and preferably no Poly U though I have heard if the Poly U vapors have evaporated, it should not impact Inner air quality (IAQ). Do you have any suggestions?

    Thank you!

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