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Wood Dust Added to California Prop 65: Should You Be Afraid?

In a bid to protect public health, it seems that wood dust has been added to California’s Prop 65 hit list of toxic agents. What this means is that each box of wood product, including  wood flooring and laminate floors too, is to be labelled with a grim health warning that includes the word ‘cancer’.

In accordance to Proposition 65, once known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (1986), substances listed in the proposition must carry warnings that they are carcinogenic. Wood dust has been added as a result of a study conducted in the summer of 2010 by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) based in France.

And this isn’t just in the case of trade in California. According to October 4/11 issue of Floor Covering Weekly, spokespeople for wood flooring giants Shaw, Mohawk, and Anderson, as well as the NWFA will be making changes to their packaging across the board as it is impractical to package separately for the state of California. We at BuildDirect will, too.  This could mean some pretty major implications as far as product perception goes for the floor covering industry.

Here’s my take on this: it’s bonkers. Here’s why.

First, I should put this into perspective. California has been a leading force in improving environmental concerns at the state level as it comes to bear on public health when thinking about building codes, and also about household air quality. CARB (California Air Resources Board) has been a particularly effective force in making sure that air quality, both in the home as well as emissions where car traffic and industry is concerned, is held to a strict standard. And well it should be. It’s air. We need air to be of good quality in order to ensure the good health of communities and people living in the regions where local legislation is in effect. It doesn’t take a scientific study to determine that. So, kudos to these kinds of efforts.

But, labeling wood floor packaging using the word ‘cancer’ is another matter entirely. In actuality, here’s the full statement as it must appear on wood floor packaging, for your reference:

“Drilling, sawing, sanding or machining wood products generates wood dust, a substance known to the State of California to cause cancer. Avoid inhaling wood dust or use a dust mask or other safeguards for personal protection.” [Thanks to Hardwood floors Magazine]

Most consumers of wood products and flooring materials know that there are health risks in breathing in foreign particles of any kind. That’s why smart installers are already wearing masks, and cutting floor boards outside when they can, or in otherwise well-ventilated areas.  All reputable vendors of wood flooring already indicate this practice in installation instructions as they’re provided in current packaging, on websites, and in conversation with customers face-to-face.

So, the question is: who is this new set of packaging standards serving, exactly? I honestly don’t know.

As far as educating the public about possible health concerns, let’s put this in context with a not-so-fun fact:

Drinking too much water can kill you.

This is because water flushes out the electrolytes from your system when ingested excessively. There have been documented deaths from excessive water drinking along these lines. So, why no warnings about water as there are about wood dust?

The reason there are no warnings posted on public water fountains, bottled water, and household faucets, is simple; it would be absurd.

Without some kind of context about how much water you’d have to drink for injury or death to occur, the warning would be meaningless. There would be no frame of reference provided to judge the risk.  All that would be left would be fear, and not very rational or well-informed fear, either.

Common sense is the only recourse to understanding that every public or consumer product warning like this must, must, be put into context. When you’re a full-time wood floor installer, cutting wood products with no protective gear at all on a regular basis just isn’t very smart.  But, putting the word ‘CANCER’ on product packaging like wood flooring, a product that most people will install once in their lives, to me is akin to lighting the candle of public enlightenment with a flamethrower.



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