To Carpet or not to Carpet?
by Christi Graham
That cushioned step and cozy feel that carpet provides comes with a number of significant health risks. Chemical by-product emissions from carpet fibers, backing material and adhesives, including something called 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PC) constitute the main ingredients in that familiar "new carpet smell." With as many as 120 neurotoxic chemicals in a typical sample of carpet, there's unquestionable cause for concern. Toxic chemicals can be found in the fiber bonding material, dyes, backing glues, fire retardants, latex binder, fungicides, and anti static and stain resistant treatments. A list of these include: formaldehyde, toluene, xylene, the potent carcinogen benzene and a long chain of any other tongue twisters.
Some of the more common reported complaints related to carpet exposure are; difficulty in concentrating, headaches, nervousness, chills and fever, nausea and burning in the eyes, nose and sinuses. Needless to say, most of us would prefer avoiding these health risks!
Also - carpeted floors harbor more microorganisms than any other type of floor despite the chlorinated hydrocarbons that the fibers are treated with to act as a pesticide. The fibers provide a safe haven for mold, bacteria and other allergy-causing organisms to flourish. And finally, yet another concern is the ability of carpet to trap and hold airborne VOC's, (Volatile Organic Compounds). This is known as the "sink effect." Walking across the floor with the same shoes that have been exposed to the numerous chemicals in daily life w ill distribute those chemicals into the carpet fibers, where they will remain - sometimes up to 7 years.
Alternatives to synthetic carpeting
Consider these healthy and affordable options when being "wooed" by wall-to-wall.
- Cork - a natural material, soft underfoot, absorbs sound and pressure
- Sisal, Sea Grass, or Coir
- A "hard" surfaced floor such as, recycled, reused or sustainably harvested wood floor or, Bamboo flooring instead of hardwood floor. Using throw rugs or area rugs on hard floor surfaces allows you to gain the health and aesthetic benefits of carpeting without all the negatives.
If you must carpet
Yes, it's true, carpet still has its' advantages. A good carpet can cut noise levels and potentially, energy costs. There really isn't anything like a cozy floor under barefeet - hence the reason why so many of us still choose carpeting over hard surfaces. So if you decide to opt for carpeting, consider these options that either encourage cleaner indoor air or reduce waste.
- If you are concerned about indoor air quality, explore carpets made from natural fibers - wool is a superior fiber (although a bit more costly). Look for one that has not been subjected to chemical treatments such as; permanent stain resistance, mothproofing, and anti-microbial agents (fungicides) .
- Avoid carpeting or pads containing styrene-butadiene rubber.
- Carpeting with woven, or jute backing is preferable to rubberized backing.
- Felt padding is preferable to foamed plastic or synthetic rubber padding.
- Air out the carpeting - choose a carpeting supplier that will warehouse the carpet for you. This means that the carpet will be unrolled and aired out in the warehouse prior to shipping to you.
- Sprinkle zeolite powder on the carpet periodically. Zeolite is a mineral that can absorb some of the VOC's.
- Of the synthetic carpets, 100% nylon is considered to be one of the safest
- Install a central vacuum cleaner with outlets in the rooms that are carpeted - or purchase a vacuum cleaner with A HEPA filter.
- Keep babies and young children off any new carpets.
Carpets manufactured since the 1950's are mostly synthetic combinations of petroleum and chemicals. 98% of synthetic carpeting is polymer which takes more than 100 years to biodegrade, if ever. It's been estimated that in major cities, discarded carpeting accounts for 7% of the landfill mass!
Purchasing a carpet made from recycled fibers will help keep it out of the landfill and encourage the environmentally friendly practice of reuse.
There are two basic ways to install wall-to-wall carpeting: tack down or glue down. Mechanical adherence methods are preferable to glue as the adhesives can emit VOC's and carpeting is easier to remove. Additionally, tack down methods no not destroy the floor surface, and the carpeting can be partially recycled.
Tacking strips can be nailed, screwed or glued down around the perimeter of the room. It is important that the tacking strips, if glued, are attached with a low or non- toxic glue.
With Tacfast (a hook and loop method based on Velcro), or standard tack down methods carpeting can be removed for remodeling or cleaning. If carpeting or pad gets wet, dry as quickly as possible to prevent microbial growth.
- Outgassing from new carpeting can persist at significantly high levels for up to three years after installation. In general the most active stage of outgassing is 4 weeks to 3 months.
- You might want to consider sealing your carpeting with a non toxic sealant that minimizes the outgassing and makes the carpeting more stain resistant.
E Magazine, Volume VIII, Number 2 March-April 1997 - Are Your Carpets Harboring Health Hazards? By Judy Waytiuk
The Healthy Home - Linda Mason Hunter
Architectural Resource Guide - David Kibbey
Prescriptions for a Healthy House, A Practical Guide for Architects, Builders, and Homeowners - Paula Baker, AIA, Erica Elliott, MD and John Banta
Home Safe Home - Debra Lynn Dadd