Jim Vallette - May 8, 2012

In Columbia, Mississippi, there’s a wonderful restaurant called The Round Table. You, friends and strangers, sit around a massive lazy susan, upon which turns a vast selection of foods.  Collard greens, baked potatoes, pimento cheesey things, fried chicken, creamed corn, and quavering bowls of jello whizz around the table until someone makes a choice.

If the spinning wheel were the marketplace of countertops, instead, you would see a lot of laminates and other plastic materials. 

But how to choose?  At The Round Table, you should sit beside someone with local knowledge to help you decide what to eat.  In the commercial building marketplace, the Pharos Project helps you decide.

Today, Pharos opened a new category of building materials known as solid surfaces.  These are polymeric materials, used in many applications, from countertops to bathroom fixtures to wall cladding.

In the countertops world, decorative laminate products are the main competitors of solid surfaces.  A quick look at our product evaluations for laminates and solid surfaces reveals some similarities, and distinct differences, between these product types as well as individual products.

  • Laminates and solid surfaces are manufactured with toxic chemicals.

In the case of decorative laminates, formaldehyde resins are the main chemicals of concern.  We have yet to identify a commercial laminate made without melamine formaldehyde or phenol formaldehyde resins.  

Formaldehyde causes leukemia and other cancers of the lymph nodes, blood, bone marrow and spleen.  It is a neurological, reproductive, and developmental toxicant, and triggers asthma and increased allergic sensitization.  

There are two main types of solid surfaces used in countertops: polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and polyester.  Both types require the use of hazardous monomers.  PMMA is made with methyl methacrylate (MMA).  In the production of polyester surfaces, unsaturated polyester resin is blended with styrene

Both MMA and styrene are emitted to the environment at high rates. The two largest emitters of MMA in the country are solid surface manufacturers:  the Lucite plant in Memphis, TN and DuPont’s Corian plant near Buffalo, NY (pictured above, and here, from Google Earth).  Both facilities reported over 200,000 pounds of MMA releases in 2010.  The largest emitter of styrene in the country is a polyester surface manufacturer:  Masco Bath Corporation reported that its Adamsville facility emitted over 465,000 pounds of styrene into the air in 2010.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health declared that styrene is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.  It is a known asthmagen, and there is evidence of endocrine disruption.  MMA is also an asthmagen, and is subject to the Clean Air Act, which classifies it as a hazardous air pollutant.

  • Many, but not all, countertops have achieved Greenguard Children & Schools certification for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) emissions.

Greenguard Children & Schools is a third party, independent VOC emissions test using the California 01350 Standard Practice.  This level of certification earns a respectable score of “7” in Pharos VOC evaluations.  About four of every five laminates and solid surfaces we have evaluated earned these certifications.  Two laminates, from Wilsonart, achieved the highest VOC score in Pharos: a “9.”  These are the only products that obtained third party, independent certification that they meet the California Department of Public Health residential VOC emissions test.

  • Laminates have greater demonstrated use of recycled and biobased materials.

Laminates are blends of formaldehyde resins and wood products (cellulose). Cellulose can represent up to 60 percent of the product by weight.  Differentiation between these products is found in the sourcing of the cellulose.  Products that use Forest Stewardship Council-certified cellulose score quite high in Pharos for Renewable Materials.   Conversely, those products that use virgin, uncertified, cellulose do not.

Biobased polymers have not made much progress in the world of solid surfaces.  Conventional polyester and acrylic surfaces contain very little recycled content.  The recycled content that is used is typically internal to the manufacturer (or pre-consumer).  However, there is one company that uses a lot of pre-consumer waste from a third party.  Solid Surface Acrylics incorporates acrylic dust from DuPont’s nearby Corian solid surface operation.  Some of their products contain as much as 90 percent recycled content.

Further details on the chemistry and other issues with countertops may be found in our category descriptions for solid surfaces and decorative laminates.

So, when you are considering which countertop to specify or purchase, please choose wisely.  What you eat on is often as important as what you eat.

Jim Vallette is the Research Director for the Healthy Building Network.