Real Estate Report: Linoleum or Vinyl for your floor?

Real Estate Report: Linoleum or Vinyl for your floor?

Pat Colburn

When choosing materials in a remodel, it’s important to consider not only the design, durability and functionality, but also how the smells or off-gassing may affect inhabitants of the house. Cabinetry, flooring and the attendant adhesives may contain some of the strongest chemicals most likely to trigger allergic reactions.

We’re remodeling our mid-century kitchen and although visitors like the green tile on the counter tops and back splash, I’m tired of cleaning grout!

My husband, who does most of the cooking, considered a stone floor to be too hard and since I tend to splatter water everywhere, a wood floor was out of the question. So we narrowed our choices to vinyl or linoleum and I started doing some research.

Both flooring types are considered "resilient" flooring which refers to their relatively firm surface, and a “give” and “bounce back” to their original surface profile when a heavy object is compressed on its surface. Resilient flooring is commonly used because it can be easily cleaned, is moisture-resistant and doesn’t trap dust.

Linoleum is more expensive, but will last 40 years compared to vinyl’s 10 years. When we bought our house it had white vinyl flooring in the kitchen. Really? White flooring in a kitchen? We’re two mature adults with light impact and this 7-year-old vinyl floor has not aged well at all. Since the color or pattern in a vinyl floor is only in the surface layer, any nick or scratch will show. The color in a linoleum floor is through all layers.

Although most people can install the tiles for either flooring type, it’s best to hire a professional to install linoleum rolls.

Newly laid linoleum floors have a pronounced linseed-oil scent and although it dissipates in a matter of months, during that time, certain people may be bothered (sometimes because of an allergy) by the oil's fatty acids. We had our linoleum floor laid one day before guests arrived and maybe it was because we were doing the tourist bit with them, running all over the Bay Area, I never noticed the smell except right after it was installed.

The deciding factor for me was that linoleum is made of linseed oil (pressed from the flax plant), pine resin, wood flour, cork powder, limestone dust, natural pigments, and jute, while vinyl is made from petroleum oil which is mixed with chemicals such as polyvinyl chloride (or vinyl) resins and plasticizers (high molecular-weight solvents), pigments and trace stabilizers, with a carrier sheet or backing. Simple choice, right? But there’s more.

The plasticizers most commonly used in polyvinyl chloride (vinyl flooring) are phthalates, which increase the flexibility and durability of the product. I couldn’t find much info on phthalates from the vinyl flooring manufacturers’ web pages, but when I checked polyvinyl chloride and phthalates on Wikipedia, I learned more than I bargained for.

Phthalates are ubiquitous in our environment. They are used in adhesives and glues, electronics, agricultural adjuvants, building materials, personal-care products, (cosmetics), medical devices, detergents and surfactants, packaging, children's toys (!), modeling clay, waxes, paints, printing inks and coatings (school notebooks and backpacks), pharmaceuticals, food products and textiles, and the list goes on and on.

As plastics age and break down, the release of phthalates accelerates. That "new car smell" you like so much? It’s caused mostly by plasticizers evaporating from the car interior. Adverse effects of phthalate exposure include irregular rhythms in vitro, endocrine disruptor, incomplete descent of testes of newborn boys, and lower sperm counts in men. A recent study suggested that high levels of phthalates may be connected to the current child obesity epidemic. The study found that obese children showed greater exposure to phthalates than non-obese children and that obesity risk increased with the level of the chemical in their bloodstream.

The specific phthalate, Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), which is used in polyvinyl chloride, is also used in medical devices such as intravenous tubing and bags, catheters, etc. According to the European Commission Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER), exposure to DEHP may exceed the tolerable daily intake in some specific population groups, namely people exposed through medical procedures. The American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated not to use medical devices that can leach DEHP into patients and, instead, to resort to DEHP-free alternatives.

Swedish study findings released earlier this year showed that phthalates from PVC flooring were taken up into childrens' bodies and that children could absorb the substances through food, breathing and through their skin.

You could spend days reviewing the material that’s available on the adverse effects of phthalates just in our homes! Although it would be impossible to fully eliminate these poisons from our homes, reducing their use would be the first step towards improving the health of family members.

Protect your family’s health by choosing safe finishes. Many materials and finishes in a renovated kitchen have the potential to cause health problems, but there are ways to avoid compromising your family’s health:

Seal particle board and MDF: Kitchen cabinets and counters are often constructed of particleboard and medium density fiberboard (MDF). Both these products often contain urea formaldehyde glue, a known cause of myriad health issues. To reduce exposure to the glue, paint exposed particleboard on cabinets or the underside of the counter top with several coats of a water-based, low VOC sealant. It is much preferred that sealing be completed at the factory or counter shop, prior to installation in your home.

Choose low-formaldehyde products: Cabinets and counter tops can be made using exterior grade plywood which is typically held together with glue made of phenol formaldehyde. Phenol is less toxic than urea formaldehyde. The best option is to use formaldehyde-free MDF.

Choose low- or no-VOC paints and wood finishes Walls are the largest surface area in the house. Every remodel requires painting when the work is completed. Use semi-gloss, low or no VOC paints. They are water-based and don’t off-gas solvents into the living space. If you are finishing wood, like window sills, make sure that the low VOC wood finish is a good water-proofing sealant.

Other resources include:
This Old House and GreenBuilding.com are great resources for all things regarding a remodel.
http://leedbootcamp.blogspot.com/2007/09/linoleum-vs-vinyl.html
http://www.floorsbyphoenix.com/images/pdfs/l885%20msds.pdf
http://www.forboflooringna.com/Residential-Flooring/Installation-maintenance/installing-sheet-tile/

Pat Colburn is a local REALTOR® who has studied energy efficiency and health issues of homes since 2008. She can be reached at 510-919-6169 or Pat@PatColburn.com.