Michael Chotiner

Design professionals are pretty clear on the most desirable characteristics for flooring installed in senior care facilities. Flooring in high-traffic areas — including lobbies, hallways, dining areas and restrooms — should be:

  • Flat and smooth to eliminate trip hazards, facilitate walking with a cane or walker, and provide low resistance to wheelchairs

  • Slip-resistant to prevent falls

  • Cushioned to reduce impact in the event of a fall

  • Monochromatic or have simple, non-contrasting patterns and a low-glare finish so as not to confuse those with impaired vision or depth perception

  • Impervious to water and other spills

  • Easy to care for

  • Healthy and sustainable

Among commonly specified flooring products, carpeting, wood, laminates, ceramic and stone tile clearly have drawbacks when measured against the criteria. Vinyl and linoleum — especially when installed over a cushioned substrate—more closely meet the standards.

Environmental concerns about vinyl flooring

Although it’s costlier than vinyl, linoleum is more often recommended for healthcare settings by orthodox health and sustainability advocates in the professional design community. The bad rap against vinyl flooring is that it isn’t a “natural” product.

Vinyl, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is made from the fossil fuel petroleum. It is said to emit dioxin, which is a known carcinogen, and phthalates, which are thought to affect endocrine functioning. The most often cited issue with vinyl flooring is that it outgasses volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with negative impact on indoor air quality.

But not all vinyl flooring is created equal. Nancy Kibbee, an editor for Natural Interiors, examines the actual and perceived issues in her answer to a reader question: “What is the truth about vinyl?”

Ms. Kibbee calls dioxin emission “an end-of-product-life issue” rather than a health threat during the service life of a vinyl floor. Dioxin would be released only if the material were incinerated after removal—which is no longer common practice by today’s hazardous waste disposal standards.

The most common exposure to phthalate esters occurs not from vinyl flooring but rather when drinking from plastic cups. Phthalates are also used pharmaceutical pill casings, food products and textiles.

VOCs may or may not be a problem based on the composition of a specific vinyl flooring product—and the industry has adopted a third-party certification system called FloorScore that enables specifiers to distinguish low-emission vinyl from the run-of-the-mill.

What the FloorScore certification means

FloorScore was developed by the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) together with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) to test and certify flooring products and adhesives for compliance with indoor air quality emission requirement adopted by the State of California Specification 01350, which is the most rigorous standard in the U.S. FloorScore sets limits for 38 compounds based on the California regulation. SCS tests vinyl flooring products and certifies only those with results below the limits. SCS lists certified products on its website.

If part of your job involves managing facility construction or renovation, look for the FloorScore IAQ seal on vinyl flooring products for assurance that you’re approving the healthiest, most cost-effective flooring available.

Michael Chotiner worked for many years as a general construction contractor and contributes his expertise writing for the Home Depot. To research the many types of flooring discussed by Michael in his article, you can visit the Home Depot website.