Vinyl & Indoor Air Quality

Most architects and builders agree that the air quality inside a building depends on a number of factors, including how a building is designed, built and maintained; the construction materials, furnishings and cleaning materials used in the building; the heating/ventilating/air conditioning (HVAC) system; and the behavior of occupants.

Common indoor air pollutants include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from such household items as cleaning products, insulation, adhesives, paint strippers, pressed wood products, tobacco smoke and pesticides. Mold, pollen, pet dander, dust and dust mites, and microscopic insects can also cause problems, especially for the millions of people who are prone to allergies, asthma and other indoor sensitivities.

The importance of adequate air exchange in buildings and homes cannot be overstressed as a tool for minimizing indoor air problems.

Additionally, many experts agree that easy-to-clean surfaces can help minimize the opportunity for build-up and proliferation of common indoor pollutants. Vinyl products such as flooring, wallcovering and upholstery fabrics are examples of easy-to-clean surfaces. Vinyl is so effective in this regard that it plays an important role in health care facilities.

For example, researchers at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago, found that upholstery such as vinyl, which can be easily disinfected, provides less opportunity than fabrics for the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant microbes.1  And a recent survey of interior designers who specialize in healthcare design found that many of them prefer sheet vinyl flooring where infection control is an issue because its seams can be heat-welded and it is self-coving.2

Homes and commercial buildings can benefit just as health care facilities do from vinyl surfaces that are easy to wipe and keep clean.

Moisture & Odors

Water leaks, excess humidity and other sources of moisture can create serious mold problems in buildings and homes. Moisture can also be affected by how building materials and furnishings are specified and installed. With vinyl wallcoverings, for example, care must be taken to prevent moisture buildup inside walls in hot, humid climates. Because vinyl wallcoverings are fairly impermeable, condensation can occur inside walls in heavily air-conditioned buildings in such climates.

Manufacturers of vinyl wallcoverings have taken steps to address this issue with innovations such as mildew-resistant or “microvented” products that allow moisture trapped behind a show surface to escape into the room. Mildew-resistant adhesives help as well.

As with many components of a building, qualified professionals must ensure that products are properly specified and installed.


Odors can be another area of concern. Most manufactured interior products – carpeting and other flooring, wallcoverings, fabrics and furniture – have an odor when newly installed. In the case of vinyl, the odor results from additives that give the vinyl its particular performance attributes, as well as the printing inks. These components are confined when newly manufactured products are packed for shipment. As the products are unwrapped and aired out, the odors begin to spread and soon dissipate – generally faster than the odors from most paints.

In fact, a recent study by an independent laboratory found that emissions from one manufacturer’s vinyl wallcoverings were almost negligible compared to emission levels from latex paint. The tests measured wall “systems” with the paint applied to gypsum board, and a 20-ounce vinyl wallcovering applied to the same gypsum board with a white primer and heavy duty, pre-mixed vinyl adhesive.3

As noted above, good ventilation is part of the solution to indoor odors – and, to a large extent, moisture. Ventilating with up to 100 percent outside air can reduce the initial period of highest emissions. Information on the “airing out” time can be found in the product literature and should always be observed.

Emission guidelines developed by governmental agencies such as the State of Washington’s Department of General Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency define “low-emitting” for general construction materials, building furnishings and equipment, carpet, office furniture and seating.  When indoor air quality is a concern for a specific building environment, low emitting products can be specified. For example, the Carpet and Rug Institute has developed a testing and labeling program that identifies low-emitting products produced by its member companies, including vinyl-backed carpet and carpet adhesives.

Plasticizers

An occasional question is raised about possible indoor air effects from plasticizers used to make vinyl products flexible. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in a recent study of childhood asthma was not able to find evidence linking plasticizer exposure to this disease.4  Instead, IOM found the strongest links to pet dander, dust mites and cockroaches. Vinyl plasticizers have been thoroughly researched, tested and used for decades without any evidence of adverse human health effects from normal use of products.


1G.A. Noskin, MD, P. Bednarz, BSN, T. Suriano, RN, MS, CIC, S. Reiner, RN, CIC, L.R. Peterson, MD,
"Persistent contamination of fabric-covered furniture by vancomycin-resistant enterococci: Implications for upholstery selection in hospitals," American Journal of Infection Control, August 2000; 28:311-3

2"Materials Selection in Healthcare Design," a survey of the members of the International Interior Design Association Healthcare Forum, conducted by JSR Associates, Inc. on behalf of the Vinyl Institute, April, 2002.

3"Total Volatile Organic Compounds: York Wallcoverings AQS Project," Air Quality Sciences, Inc., December 14, 2001.

4"Clearing the Air: Asthma and Indoor Air Exposures," Institute of Medicine Committee on the Assessment of Asthma and Indoor Air, National Academy of Sciences (2000).