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Homeowners try to assess risks from chemical in floors

Installing a new wood floor is usually about aesthetics: brown or black? Glossy or matte?

Now, some Americans and businesses are grappling with another feature: formaldehyde.

Uneasy consumers have flooded state and federal safety agencies with inquiries about Lumber Liquidators, the discount flooring retailer accused in a “60 Minutes” episode of selling laminate wood with high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Should they rip it out? Leave it in? And what are the dangers to adults, children or even pets?

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York has now opened an inquiry into whether the company violated safety standards. Safety officials in California are also likely to investigate.

But federal regulators, armed with murky rules or none at all, have scrambled to respond, leaving consumers largely responsible for assessing the risk. Formaldehyde exposure can cause immediate health problems like respiratory and sinus effects, but the effects of long-term exposure remain unclear.

That has left many Lumber Liquidators customers concerned about what they should do.

Sol Hesney, 66, and his wife, Lynne, said they were mystified when their two dogs became sick shortly after they moved into their apartment in Fort Lee, N.J., five years ago.

“The vet was stumped. We were stumped,” said Hesney, who ultimately had both dogs euthanized.

After the news of Lumber Liquidators’ high-formaldehyde flooring broke on March 1, Hesney said he and his wife decided that they would replace their floors – they had installed the company’s Chinese-made laminate floors before moving in.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe that’s what explains this. It’s just too coincidental,’ ” he said. Since they moved in, he said, he had three serious sinus colds requiring antibiotics within a year’s time, something that had never happened to him before, and his wife had bronchitis.

But regulators, at least for now, are advocating a more tempered approach.

“We are not encouraging people to rip out their flooring right now,” said Lynn Baker, an air pollution specialist with the California Air Resources Board, which enforces the state formaldehyde rules that Lumber Liquidators is accused of breaking.

A spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the agency was paying close attention to the Lumber Liquidators issue.

But while federal rules exist for workers, no federal rules protect consumers from formaldehyde or most other airborne chemicals in their homes.

And while research exists on formaldehyde’s health effects, experts have difficulty correlating levels of exposure with cancer risk since so many factors can affect the development of the disease.

“Any exposure to a carcinogen can increase your risk of cancer,” said Marilyn Howarth, a toxicologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Baker, with the California agency, said consumers should ask two questions: How long has the flooring been installed, and have they been feeling sick?

“If the flooring has been installed more than a couple of years ago, most of it has probably already off-gassed,” he said, meaning that the chemical would probably have been released. “If it was just installed last week, that’s a different story – you definitely want to ventilate the home.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission may take a lead role in investigating Lumber Liquidators. The commission can push for a recall if it can prove direct harm to human health.

But that would involve a long regulatory inquiry. Several consumers have begun pursuing a different path: suing the company.