Ultrabond 990 adhesive, photo courtesy of MAPEI.

CRI has instituted a "Green Label" testing program to identify low-volatile organic compound (VOC) floor covering adhesives. The program tests for chemical emissions using an independent laboratory that specializes in indoor air quality testing. Adhesives that meet the emissions criteria are allowed to display the program's green-and-white label. Carpet manufacturers, installers and end users seeking a low-emitting adhesive can confidently select those bearing the label. Products are re-tested regularly for continued compliance.
In today's marketplace, the collateral effect of floor covering adhesives and their byproducts are a primary concern. Over the years, these products have attracted critical scrutiny due to their potentially negative impact on indoor air quality (IAQ). Also influencing the development of current-generation adhesives has been the environmental "Green Movement" and Life Cycle Assessment, and the sustainability of the floor covering system to be installed.

In some quarters, the debate still rages over whether solvent-based adhesives are superior to water-based varieties. However, issues concerning their performance, susceptibility to moisture, ease of application and so on are now moot points. For all intents and purposes, environmental concerns, legislation, litigation, and consumer awareness have converged to close the door on the controversy.

Today, virtually all floor covering adhesives contain fewer potentially harmful compounds and emit lower levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than their counterparts of years past. Thus, the argument over whether previous-generation adhesives performed better than today's varieties serves as nothing more than a trip down memory lane, particularly for the old-school installers who cut their teeth installing flooring with yesterday's adhesive formulations.

Domestic legislation and regulations now in force - such as California Proposition 65, California's South Coast Air Quality Management District rule 1168, various U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, the Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label Program guidelines, and voluntary restrictions floor covering manufacturers now place on themselves - have dictated the direction for current and future adhesive formulations. Furthermore, to ignore the impact of the international community and the move to establish international standards - especially as they relate to chemical usage and their consequences to the environment - would be senseless and ill advised.

So, it's a smart bet that environmentally friendly "green" adhesives are here to stay. And conventional wisdom indicates that these products will only get greener in the future.

Certain chemicals traditionally used in adhesives, such as l.l.l. trichloroethane, toluene, ethylene glycol, methanol, and aromatic process oils, are particularly troublesome. Each of those chemicals I've mentioned has been identified as one or more of the following: an ozone depleting compound, a carcinogen, a flammable or extremely flammable agent, or a toxin to humans and/or the environment.

Thankfully, the use of these chemicals in floor covering adhesives has been drastically reduced or eliminated completely. However, the compounds named above constitute only a fraction of the chemicals that are now listed at issue or identified as being potentially harmful by the American or international community. This list not only affects the composition of floor covering adhesives and flooring materials, but all building products as well.

For adhesive manufacturers, the ongoing challenge has been to produce a "safe" adhesive that meets the performance standards set by traditional solvent-based adhesives. Complying with all legislation and the demands of the public, while still meeting the performance requirements of the floor covering community, was once considered almost a contradiction. But to its credit, the industry has risen to the task of developing safer adhesives.

Freeze-thaw stability, peel and shear strength, retack, and moisture tolerance - to name just a few prized qualities of solvent-based adhesives - have all been reproduced in the solvent-free generation of products. And despite critics' initial skepticism, many of today's solvent-free adhesives surpass the performance of their predecessors.

It's true that the performance characteristics of today's adhesives vary widely. But almost without exception, they represent a vast improvement over yesterday's solvent-containing adhesives in just about every aspect.

To put this into perspective, application and material requirements are such that they must be viewed as a system. Though an environmentally friendly adhesive is available for virtually any installation and floor covering material, it generally comes at higher cost. In real-world situations, inexpensive (cheap) or inappropriate adhesives are sometimes substituted due to price concerns.

This becomes a major problem not only in an environmental sense but also because use of the wrong adhesive often results in system failure. Fortunately, the adage "you get what you pay for" is fast becoming the accepted motto when it comes to choosing floor covering adhesives.

Without question, the move to greener, safer and environmentally friendly products is inexorable. Even so, compliance with legislation, observance of new and existing regulations, and meeting the challenges yet to come are formidable tasks. However, the industry has demonstrated its ability to conquer problems that years ago were thought to be insurmountable.

In the final analysis, ongoing improvement in adhesive safety cannot be accomplished without programs focused on the continuing education of flooring professionals. This commitment to building awareness and knowledge is one that industry leaders throughout the floor covering community must make regardless of its difficulty to implement.