If you're looking for new flooring (or considering refinishing your old parquet), it's important to choose nontoxic, durable materials. While popular and inexpensive, petroleum-based polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flooring, bought rolled or in tiles, and laminates (which may contain wood pulp or wood chips) can pose a host of health and environmental problems. But even "green" options aren't always so healthful. Bamboo flooring, for example, is made from fast-growing, sustainable bamboo, but it's also frequently produced with adhesives containing formaldehyde. Hardwood, such as oak, is routinely sealed with oil-based polyurethane, a respiratory irritant. Recycled-rubber flooring sounds great, but can be made from old tires, and often has a strong odor. It pays to know what's underfoot.
If price limits you to wood laminates, look for those with low-VOC emissions. Borrow a couple of boards from a retailer and keep them in your living room. Does the smell bother you? If so, check out other brands. You may find some natural-wood flooring at a competitive price. Make sure any sealants on your floors are water-based and contain no or few VOCs. Although stone and tile aren't renewable, they're good choices for floors exposed to a lot of sunlight because they will slowly release the heat they absorb into your home. If you're interested in rubber flooring, look for natural -- not synthetic -- rubber, and make sure it's free of contaminants and chlorine.
Always ask your retailer about the flooring -- the manufacturer should supply information about its sustainability. Look for products made from renewable resources, such as cork, palm, or bamboo. Buy only brands that use no- or low-VOC adhesives. You can also purchase true linoleum that is made with cork and linseed oil. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies hardwood flooring that comes from managed forests (look for the FSC seal). It's best to have wood prefinished at the factory, so that you don't have to seal it at home.
Consider refinishing the flooring you already have. Wood floors can be lightly machine-sanded (wear a mask and gloves) and coated with a water-based sealant. Earthpaint carries many wood finishes. Another eco-friendly option is reclaimed wood, which may have had a former life, and in some cases can be of an even higher quality than the new wood flooring you'll find in stores. If you decide to replace flooring that's in decent shape, ask your contractor if he or she knows a vendor who might be interested in purchasing the wood (or just taking it off your hands), so it can be put to use again.