By Melissa Donovan
Environmental and human health concerns are important for any application, however when it comes to digitally printed wallcoverings odor, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air, mold, and mildew, and even fire safety are critical.
Media designed for digitally printed wallcovering applications addresses these issues head on, whether they are PVC-free vinyl/film or fabric/fiber-based substrates that could be composed of renewable resources. Manufacturers focus on these serious issues while still addressing the durability required from a wallcovering placed in a high-traffic area. Compromise isn’t necessary, health and safety, as well as a robust graphic can all be achieved.
Above: Example of Saint Clair Textiles’ Jet Tex PVC-free wallcovering in an office environment
Special Concerns for Special Places
Wherever digitally printed wallcoverings are placed the aforementioned concerns are relevant. However, it could be argued that applications installed in hotels, residential spaces, office buildings, hospitals, and doctors’ offices are more important to consider the environment and the interest of human health.
“There is always a concern for environments like hospitals and then expanding into doctor offices, hotels, and offices to use the safest non-toxic ink, paints, and adhesives as a simple measure to make the environment safer,” says Walter Gierlach, president, Photo Tex Group, Inc.
Al Bobst, director of new business development, Monadnock Paper Mills, Inc., would add to that list schools, nurseries, libraries, and private residences. “Safe and healthy wallcoverings should be of interest to all. Really, any indoor place where people gather will benefit from the use of more sustainable wallcoverings.”
“For all wallcoverings environmental and human health concerns are critically relevant regardless of where they are installed. VOCs or other outgassed emissions of additives such as phthalates can cause negative effects on the environment and health of its occupants. Factors like ink type and adhesive must be considered as well as the overall cleanability of the wallcovering,” notes Peter Bourgeois, territory sales manager, Drytac.
Jay Kroll, product manager for cut and craft films, wall and transit media, General Formulations, agrees. “There is equal value in considering these concerns whether it’s for a boardroom or bedroom, hotel or hallway, however, modern materials are not typically the high VOC polluters of the past with both inks and substrates having improved in recent years. The difference in applications may have more to do with traffic and exposure and therefore the need for washability to remove any potential bacteria and the durability to handle repeated cleaning.”
Roy S. Ritchie Jr., president, DreamScape, believes the concern for human health should be consistent in all areas, whether it be commercial, residential, hospitality, or retail. He admits that some market segments are more demanding in terms of environmental and health concerns.
Not only should the environment be questioned, but the length of time a person is in that location as well as the footprint. “We should consider how long a person is staying in one place. Also take into account how large a facility is in any given spot as opposed to small quartered areas. So yes, we should always keep in mind the environment and what I call space containment,” adds Gierlach.
“It depends upon the specifics of the application, but typically longer term installations should be more concerned with the human health elements of the products. You don’t want offgassing of VOCs and plasticizers from vinyl migrating into the air where people breath, particularly in sensitive environments such as schools and medical facilities,” agrees Anthony Pappalardo, sales manager, Saint Clair Textiles.
Places where residents or visitors are more susceptible to illness are particularly important to address. “Environmental and health concerns regarding wallcoverings and other building materials are, of course, essential for all human environments, but spaces such as schools, hospitals, and health facilities are more sensitive as their residents are more vulnerable. Children and those with health concerns are susceptible to indoor air quality problems as they breathe higher air volume per body weight,” explains Shaun Jaycox, product specialist, Brand Management Group/S-One Holdings Corporation.
Angel Georgiou, senior marketing specialist, Imaging Supplies, Canon Solutions America, says these concerns are brought up in the discussion phase of a project, and pushed aside when the actual job occurs. “This is frustrating because we talk about environmental and everyone has their own ‘green’ or eco solution, but every application installation is unique so depending on material and ink, different decisions are made.”
Addressing the Issues
Materials used for digitally printed wallcoverings address concerns like air quality and mold or mildew growth in multiple ways—without compromising on quality or durability.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks indoor air pollution as one of the top five environmental risks to public health, notes Jaycox. “Many wallcovering products contain hazardous compounds such as bromine, arsenic, mercury, lead, phthalates, heavy metals, and toxic flame retardants that can contaminate the air quality of a room.”
“VOCs have been targeted in recent years as potentially harmful for long-term exposure. Certain plastics have come under question in regards to the VOCs that are emitted into the air. A more common term for this would be outgassing. The odor sometimes associated with wallcovering could be innocuous. Typically a smelly wallcovering is an indication that the printed ink has not been fully cured. While the odor may be a nuisance, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is harmful. And almost always this smell will dissipate quickly in a matter of days. Unfortunately there are inks and materials that do outgas harmful VOCs so consumers should pay attention,” recommends Ritchie.
With a specific focus on those working in tight spaces or areas for countless hours breathing in the air, Gierlach says we should all be aware of what paints or wallpapers are giving off VOCs.
Georgiou also references VOC concerns. “Latex and now UVgel ink sets are VOC friendly so more print service providers (PSPs) have moved to PVC-free materials because it limits the exposure to the vinyl VOC issues, but then they have to address durability with ink sets. In order for latex inks to be truly Type II compliant, they have to be UV coated.”
To minimize outgassing, manufacturers create PVC-free alternatives or vinyl without additives such as phthalates. Using moisture-stable aqueous adhesives can also help remove potential trouble areas, shares Bourgeois.
“Vinyl manufacturers qualify and implement the use of ingredients like different plasticizers and stabilizers that result in virtually no offgassing and have done so without compromising quality and durability and while adding features and functionality to the end product,” notes Kroll.
Mold growth is something that can happen regardless if there is a wallcovering on the wall or not. “Mold growth with wallcoverings is often a concern with builders and specifiers because of the trouble it can cause. Mold remediation can be very costly and disruptive to a property. Mold spores in the air can cause allergic reactions with certain people,” explains Ritchie.
Wallcoverings can exasperate the growth of mold because “a wall cavity that has high moisture could become worse when wallcoverings are used. First, the discovery of the growth of the mold could be delayed because the wallcovering is hiding the problem. Second, the moisture in the wall could be prevented from escaping if the wallcovering acts like a barrier,” continues Ritchie.
In response to mold growth and bacterial contamination, “using a barrier film or antimicrobial laminate will provide additional protection against the spread of microbial contamination. Combined with an effective cleaning regiment this offers reliable protection from mold growth and bacterial contamination in environments where hygiene is of importance,” says Bourgeois.
“We see more use of smooth surface products that can be cleaned and disinfected easily. People look for products that meet health and safety requirements,” adds Jaycox.
To enhance breathability, which helps in the reduction of mold and mildew, Ritchie says some wallcoverings have porous surfaces that are breathable and allow trapped moisture to escape. “For wallcovering products that are not porous, such as commercial vinyl, a great solution is to punch tiny holes throughout the material by micro-perforation,” he suggests.
Bobst notes that there is a common misnomer that eco-friendly wallcoverings lack in durability. “There are different ‘grades’ of wallcovering. Historically only vinyl substrates met the most stringent durability requirements for Type II and Type III wallcoverings. These standards apply primarily to commercial applications in high-traffic areas. High-performance renewable, fiber-based papers are now engineered for more durability and printability.”
PVC-free products have faced their fair share of challenges. In the past, Pappalardo says these materials were blocked from Type II certification, which tests a material for stain resistance, abrasion resistance, flame resistance, and weight. Over the last few years, manufacturers have developed PVC-free, eco-friendly wallcovering fabrics that can be certified to Type II specifications.
“Making a cleaner product and specifically a wallcovering with lower VOCs, should not compromise quality or durability in any way. In fact, by using higher quality ingredients the product should improve,” argues Ritchie.
The Relevancy of Vinyl
Vinyl-based wallcoverings still have a pertinent place.
“While PVC-free wallcoverings—and more so the truly ‘green’ and sustainable options like bamboo or hemp—are great options, I would caution not to rule out vinyl in this space. It’s important to take note of the vast improvements made both in modern vinyl chemistry as well as the manufacturing process and understand that significant changes have been made since the start of the PVC-free movement,” cautions Kroll.
Due to its printability, affordability, and versatility vinyl is still applicable, says Bourgeois.
“On a cost to performance basis it has proven nearly impossible to find a perfect replacement to vinyl,” agrees Ritchie.
There is a place for vinyl-based wallcoverings, for example Bobst says “it is still preferable below the chair rail in hotels and other high-traffic commercial environments.”
Real World Influences
There is a real need for awareness of wallcovering products that address environmental and human health concerns. If you want to learn more about wallcoverings, specifically with a focus on environmental and human health, visit digitaloutput.net/webinars and watch our recent broadcast.
Jun2022, Digital Output