Is Rubber Flooring Safe for Healthcare?

Sheet Rubber Flooring

Sheet Rubber Flooring

I imagine if I were a cancer patient; young, terrified, but trying to remain optimistic. I approach the door to my infusion clinic with a nervous pit in my stomach only to be greeted with a CALIFORNIA PROP 65 warning plaque on the door. “Warning. This area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.” The irony of it would almost be funny if it weren’t so disgusting.

View the California Prop 65 Toxic Chemicals List

We have been awarded a couple of oncology projects recently and, more than ever before, my design decisions have been weighing on me. I have been doing a lot of research into the toxicity of the flooring materials we specify. A lot of research has been done on resilient sheet flooring specifically and the reports are alarming. There is so much information that I couldn’t possibly put it all into one brief blog post so I’m going to do several, breaking up my findings into smaller, easily digestible bits. Please share your thoughts and findings in the comments as I am still researching and learning more about hazardous chemicals in resilient flooring every day.

I met with one rubber flooring sales rep last week who briefed me on the highlights of their latest-and-greatest rubber sheet goods. Having visited a rubber flooring manufacturing facility several years ago, I recall a few key sales points. First, it is touted as a green alternative to vinyl floors. The facility I visited boasted that at no time did their workers need to wear respirators or dust masks.  Other bragging rights identified rubber floors as being non-porous, chemically resistant, easy to clean, wax free, at least partially made of natural materials, not to mention it has superior acoustical value.

I was curious if anything had changed. I asked our rep what was new about her rubber floors. I learned the following:

  1. All the rubber is 100% synthetic. There was no natural rubber in this particular product.
  2. It has been evaluated and certified as a material that does not cause asthma or allergies.
  3. Labeled as Phthalate, halogen and chlorine free.

All products come with claims, so after she left I decided to cross-reference her claims with the findings in the 2009 report on Resilient Flooring and Chemical Hazards: A Comparative Analysis of Vinyl and Other Alternatives for Health Care. Here’s what I found.

About Synthetic Rubber Flooring

Understandably, natural rubber is not a realistic option for commercial healthcare floors. The sales rep explained that the color of it was too limiting but obviously there are a host of performance issues that accompany natural rubber.

What are you getting when you buy synthetic rubber also called Styrene Butadiene Rubber or SBR? According to the Resilient Flooring & Chemical Hazards report:

Styrene Butadiene Rubber (SBR) flooring is an improvement over PVC but still heavily laden with hazards. Like PVC, its manufacture includes a substantial amount of PBTs (persistent bioaccumulative toxicants), but there is more potential to remove PBTs through reformulation than is achievable with PVC.  Still, the primary compound used in synthetic rub­ber – styrene butadiene – is dependent upon two carcinogen feedstocks, leaving it also with unavoid­able serious High Hazard chemicals in its life cycle. Rubber flooring materials trigger concerns with toxic contaminants in the manufacturing process, as well as in the final product, including the use of hazard­ous flame retardants. Use of recycled rubber flooring may also raise concern because of its potentially high toxic content.

Allergens and Asthma

The claim that this flooring brand doesn’t cause allergies or asthma turned out to be a no-brainer after about 20 second’s worth of research. Concerns about rubber allergies are actually associated with latex specifically, present exclusively in natural rubber. The proteins in latex are completely absent in synthetic rubber…thus no allergies or allergy associated asthma. Synthetic rubber does contain styrene (a carcinogen and neurotoxin) and often other hazardous carcinogens, heavy metals, developmental toxicants and mutagens. I don’t know, however, which ingredients are present in this particular floor or their competitor’s flooring. It would be prudent to avoid any assumptions that allergy-free equals safe.

Chlorine, Halogens and Other Toxins

Halogenated Organic Compounds, like chlorine, are typically associated with PVC (found in Vinyl floors) and some flame retardants. While SBR flooring is inherently PVC-free, some brands may contain these questionable flame-retardants which have been linked to thyroid disruption, reproductive and neurodevelopmental problems, immune suppression, and possibly cancer. There are alternative flame-retardants available that are non-PBT. It’s important to note that some halogen-free flame retardants such as antimony trioxide, a known carcinogen, may be used instead.

Rubber flooring manufacturers labeling their products as Phthalate-free are misrepresenting to a small degree. Phthalates are plasticizers used to make PVC flexible. Rubber floors are PVC free and thus Phthalate-free already. I suppose they could also claim their floors are dairy and gluten-free. When selecting vinyl flooring, however, it does make sense to ask your sales rep for phthalate-free alternatives.

Rubber flooring certainly does have some benefits over other flooring types. For starters, it requires no wax. If designers can convince high-shine loving facilities to move away from wax floors, they are doing a good thing for anyone stepping foot in the building. According to Environmental Building News “A life cycle study of flooring installation and maintenance found that the amount of VOCs emitted from a single waxing of a floor may be comparable to the amount of VOCs emitted from the flooring itself over its entire life.” Another reason for selecting rubber is that it is not vinyl. Vinyl flooring is arguably the most chemical-laden, environmentally damaging flooring option commonly used in healthcare facilities. It’s not that SBR is safe; so much as it’s not as bad as it gets.

There are only a handful of flooring types available to healthcare designers so it is important that we voice our concerns and demand better products. When considering synthetic rubber floors, be wary of marketing hype. Don’t be afraid to stump your sales reps with tough questions. If there is one thing I have found, they are more than willing to dig up answers.

Questions for your rubber flooring sales representative.

  • Does your product contain halogens like chlorine?
  • If you are using halogen-free fire retardants, which are you using?
  • Does your product contain heavy metals?
  • Do you use any toxic pigments such as carbon black and titanium dioxide?
  • Does your flooring contain any natural rubber?
  • Does your flooring contain recycled content? If so, what was it recycled from?
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6 thoughts on “Is Rubber Flooring Safe for Healthcare?

  1. Pingback: To Spec or Not to Spec? – Some thoughts on healthcare design, chemicals, finishes, agriculture, & more | Caroline Leemis Design
  2. I’m looking to move our company from carcinogenic roof protection pads (made out of rubber) to something safer for the installers and I find this blog to be eye-opening and easy to read as technical jargon causes my eyes to glaze over. I’ll be keeping an eye out for future posts.

  3. Fascinating article, Christie. How often will you be posting new blogs? Much like Nai, I stumbled upon this blog in my quest for a safe alternative to the toxic polyurethane rubber we use at our company. Naturally, I read your profile – is there a specific graduate degree for Evidence-based Design for healthcare? I lost interest in all things Architecture after my undergrad but, being the research aficionado that I am, Evidence-based Design might just be what I need to couple with my Project Management experience to get back to my first love. I’d love to learn more about this – any tidbits you could share with me will be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Onize,
      I do hope to pick up posting again soon. Fortunately, we have been very busy at work and I just haven’t found the time. (Good problem to have). While there isn’t a specific degree program that I know of, there is an Evidence-based Design accreditation program that is growing in popularity. To learn more about the EDAC program visit the Center for Health Deisgn EDAC site. Hope this helps.

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