Safety of Lumber Liquidators laminate products scrutinized

JAMES CITY — In the wake of Sunday's “60 Minutes” segment about Toano-based Lumber Liquidators and levels of formaldehyde in its laminate products, customers around the country voiced questions and concerns about the safety of flooring in their homes.

Meanwhile the company stood by its previous denials of any wrongdoing.

“Lumber Liquidators is a leader in safety, as evidenced by our track record of providing our wide range of products to 2 million satisfied customers across America,” the company said in a statement released through its public relations firm in response to a request for comment.

“We comply with applicable regulations regarding our products, including California standards for formaldehyde emissions for composite wood products — the most stringent rules in the country — and take our commitment to safety even further by employing compliance personnel around the world and utilizing the latest in cutting-edge technology to provide our customers with top-quality and high-value flooring.”

A California environmental group has claimed that testing of Lumber Liquidators' Chinese-made laminate flooring reveals formaldehyde emissions as much as 200 times more than allowed by the California standards. Those standards will be adopted nationwide in July.

Lumber Liquidators strongly denies that charge.

“These attacks are driven by a small group of short-selling investors who are working together for the sole purpose of making money by lowering our stock price,” according to the company's statement. “They are using any means to try and scare our customers with inaccurate allegations. Their motives and methods are wrong and we will fight these false attacks on all fronts.”

Lumber Liquidators' stock price has fallen from a 52-week high of $119 in February 2014 to a 52-week low of less than $40 in trading Monday, according to the New York Stock Exchange. The stock rebounded somewhat in trading Tuesday and closed at $40.79 per share.

The “60 Minutes” segment investigated three mills that Lumber Liquidators buys from in China. At all three, employees told “60 Minutes” reporters that while the boxes of Lumber Liquidators flooring were marked as meeting California standards, they did not.

However, Lumber Liquidators said they check the mills.

“As recently as late 2014, testing by independent third parties confirmed that 100 percent of the randomly selected cores used in the laminates from the factories that ‘60 Minutes' investigated came back as fully safe and compliant with California standards,” the company's statement reads. “While we were unable to witness ‘60 Minutes' testing methods, and have still yet to see a test using validated methods that has come back as anything but completely safe, out of an abundance of caution, we are reviewing our processes at these mills.”

The issue is important because long-term exposure to formaldehyde fumes can lead to chronic breathing problems and cancer. Formaldehyde is in the glues that hold the “core boards” of laminate flooring together.

“60 Minutes” also tested 31 boxes of Lumber Liquidators' laminate flooring made in China that it purchased in four states, including Virginia. Only one box met the California standards.

The company stated in a release, “We stand by every single plank of wood and laminate we sell all around the country and will continue to deliver the best product at the best price to our growing base of valued customers.”

In response to the “60 Minutes” segment and a Gazette report previewing the segment that ran in the Feb. 28 edition, people from across the country have called and emailed with questions.

From Tennessee, Brittany and Jeremy Sesti said they installed Lumber Liquidators flooring in 2013. They have two small children, both of whom have long-term respiratory issues.

“The label on the box says ‘Made in China' and says it's ‘CARB-A' (the California standard) compliant,” Brittany Sesti said. She and her husband were asking the same question that another dozen callers and two dozen email correspondents wanted to know: How do you get the flooring tested?

One option is to do it yourself. At-home test kits are available online starting at $90 and top out at about $400.

There are other options, according to Dwight Flammia, a public health toxicologist with the Virginia Department of Health.

“You can increase the humidity, decrease the temperature and increase the ventilation of the home, which will minimize the accumulation of fumes,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Also, if you have flooring in your home that you believe has formaldehyde, there are sealant products that you can buy.”

He cautioned consumers shouldn't “jump to conclusions” that they have a problem.

“If you've had the flooring for a number of years, there probably is no problem,” he said. “If you've had it installed within the last six months, that could be a problem.”

Karen Vitale, who lives in Michigan, said she'd do the home test and possibly pull up the flooring in the house she shares with her daughter and two grandchildren.

“I think $90 or $400 isn't much to be safe,” she said.

Chris Anders, of Virginia Beach, was also worried.

“My son just bought laminate flooring from them and the label on the box matched the ‘Made in China' label depicted in the ‘60 Minutes' broadcast,” he wrote. “To say the least, this is very disturbing.”

Since the flooring was installed, Anders said both of his dogs have been constantly sick.

“My son's wife is pregnant and we are extremely concerned,” Anders said.

Mike Ball, an independent flooring installer in Michigan, raised an issue not addressed in the “60 Minutes” story.

“I wonder if I'm at risk installing their (Lumber Liquidators') flooring,” he said.

While the health impacts studied have been mostly to long-term exposure, Ball pointed out that installers come in direct contact with the “core board,” where the highest concentration of formaldehyde is.

“We cut through them with circular saws,” he said. “Dust goes everywhere.”

Local flooring installers said this week that they had not heard from customers who wanted to remove their Lumber Liquidators flooring.

Liz Sword, owner of Sword Flooring, said that would probably take a while. She said her shop doesn't use Lumber Liquidators products. Ditto for Contractors Carpet. When asked if she installed Lumber Liquidators products, owner Barbara Sneed said simply, “we refuse.”

“We have our own suppliers that we've used for years,” she said. “We'll be happy to help anyone who has a problem with their floors.”

MoreThe state's Consumer Protection Hotline is 800-552-9963. Virginians can also fill out an online form at www.ag.virginia.gov/consumercomplaintform/consumerComplaintForm.aspx)”

Vaughan can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

Lumber Liquidators

1993: Founded by contractor Tom Sullivan, who began selling excess wood from jobs to other contractors. In doing so he found a niche market in floor coverings.

1996: First store opens in Roxbury, Mass.

1997: Initial public stock offering fetched $11 per share.

1999: Headquarters moves from Boston to Colonial Heights, Va.

2004: Corporate offices relocate to 306,000-square-foot headquarters and production center in Toano, formerly a John Deere plant.

2013: Federal agents raid Lumber Liquidators offices in Toano and Richmond.

2014: GreenPeace protests outside the Toano headquarters during a stockholders meeting.

2014: Report issued claiming Lumber Liquidators bought wood likely harvested illegally in Russia, a potential violation of the federal Lacey Act.

2015: Segment on “60 Minutes” claims laminate products made for Lumber Liquidators in China contain illegal amounts of formaldehyde.

About Lumber Liquidators

Stores in 46 states and more than 1,000 employees.

Company experienced sales drop in 2014, with sales off 4.3 percent.

52 week high: $110.52 per share

52 week low: $38.19 per share

Price at close of market Tuesday: $40.79

Sources: Forbes; Lumber Liquidators; Yahoo Finance

 

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