Carpet

Carpets are often made with synthetic materials that can cause respiratory symptoms, eye irritation and hormone disruption.

Healthier Carpets

  • Made of wool

  • Padding made from wool or felt

  • Green Label Plus or Greenguard low-VOC certification

  • No stain or waterproofing treatments

  • Low-VOC adhesive or fastener system

Do’s & Don’ts

  • Don’t use wall-to-wall carpeting if you can help it.

    The fibers and backing, chemical treatments, padding and glues all come with their own chemical consequences. Some types of carpeting use chemicals that have been associated with respiratory symptoms, eye irritation and rashes, as well as chemicals that can react with each other to produce formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.

  • Use wood or tile flooring instead of carpet.

    We know this is a high bar to meet, especially because synthetic carpet is one of the most inexpensive floor coverings available, but carpet’s negative impact on indoor air quality makes it hard to recommend. Solid wood flooring with a low-VOC finish, tile with a low-VOC sealant, or cork or natural linoleum are good options to consider and come at a variety of price points.

  • If you do choose carpet, consider wool carpet as a healthier alternative.

    You will be more likely to avoid the VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, associated with synthetic fibers. Also look for wool or felt carpet padding. Wool carpeting may be more expensive than synthetic, but it is a natural, renewable fiber, is biodegradable and is long-lasting if well maintained.

  • If you need to use synthetic carpet, select Green Label Plus- or Greenguard-certified carpet and padding.

    This carpet and padding has lower VOC emissions, and will limit the area covered with carpet.

  • Avoid carpets that have stain or waterproofing treatments.

  • Use low-VOC adhesives.

    These adhesives do not contain harmful solvents, or install carpeting using hook fastener systems that require no adhesive.

  • When selecting area rugs, choose wool or natural plant materials.

    Look for materials such as jute, seagrass or sisal, and natural rubber nonskid padding.

  • Regardless of flooring, use doormats and don’t wear shoes indoors.

    Taking off your shoes will prevent tracking in dirt and pollutants.

  • Be careful to limit exposure to old carpet padding during removal or renovations.

    Isolate the work area to prevent exposure to harmful flame retardants in scrap foam.

The Dirty Details

Synthetic Chemicals

Most carpet is made from synthetic fibers, usually nylon and polypropylene. Both materials are made from non-renewable petroleum and emit harmful VOCs into the air.

Carpet backing is commonly made with a synthetic rubber derived from styrene and butadiene, both of which are respiratory irritants at low levels of exposure. Long-term exposure to high levels of styrene is associated with nerve damage, and long-term exposure to butadiene is associated with cancer and heart disease. A byproduct of the rubber, 4-PCH, is a VOC that causes the distinctive new carpet smell. 4-PCH has been associated with respiratory symptoms, eye irritation and rashes, and can also react with other chemicals to produce formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.

Carpet backing may also be made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which can contain eye and respiratory irritants, and endocrine-disrupting phthalates. PVC is produced using vinyl chloride, which is known to cause cancer and liver damage in PVC plant workers. When burned, PVC also produces highly toxic dioxins, which can cause cancer, and reproductive, developmental and immune disorders.

Carpet Adhesives

Like carpet fibers and backing, carpet glues and sealants can emit harmful VOCs, may contain toxic petroleum-based solvents, and may be made with the same synthetic rubber used in carpet backing.

Carpet Treatments

Carpets are often treated with stain-resistant, antimicrobial or moth-proofing chemicals, all of which may be harmful when inhaled or ingested.

Many synthetic carpets are treated with perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, to waterproof them and prevent stains. These chemicals, found in products like Stainmaster or Scotchgard, have been identified as likely carcinogens, and are associated with birth defects and hormone disruption.

Carpets are also sometimes treated with antimicrobial coatings, like Ultrafresh, to prevent bacterial growth in the fibers. Until 2013, Ultrafresh contained the chemical tributyltin, a persistent organic pollutant, which is an endocrine disruptor and is extremely toxic to aquatic life. Newer versions of Ultrafresh contain other harmful antimicrobial chemicals like triclosan, which is another hormone-disrupting chemical.

Carpet Padding

The most common type of carpet padding is made from scraps of recycled polyurethane foam that have been glued and bonded together to form a continuous sheet. Because the foam is recycled, it is likely to contain chemical flame retardants originally added for furniture or mattress applications. Older carpet cushion may contain PBDEs, a very hazardous flame retardant that has now been phased out of the U.S. market, but that lingers in carpet padding and older furniture.

Dust, Allergens and Pollutants

Even with regular vacuuming, carpets trap household dust, pet dander and mold spores, as well as dirt, lead and pesticides tracked in from outside. Pesticides that typically break down after a few days outdoors in the sun can last for years in indoor carpet. Carpets are also the perfect environment to harbor dust mites, mold and mildew, which are all common allergens.

The American Lung Association recommends vacuuming at least three times a week with a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter to remove dirt and allergens, but even then, not all of the pollutants will be removed. And unfortunately, dust and other particles disturbed during vacuuming or other activity in the room will become redistributed in the air.

Removing dust and dirt from wood or tile floors is much easier, whether you vacuum or wet-mop.

Certifications

  • Green Label Plus

  • Greenguard

References

  1. American Lung Association, Carpets. Available at http://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/indoor/indoor-air-pollutants/carpets.html
  2. Environmental Working Group, Ask EWG: What Is New Carpet Treated With? What Can I Do? 2007. Available at https://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2007/04/ask-ewg-what-new-carpet-treated-what-can-i-do
  3. Environmental Working Group, 7 Ways to Reduce Your Exposure to PBDE Flame Retardants. 2007. Available at https://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2007/09/7-ways-reduce-your-exposure-pbde-flame-retardants
  4. Environmental Working Group, Mother's Milk: PBDE Health Effects: Independent Studies. 2003. Available at https://www.ewg.org/research/mothers-milk/pbde-health-effects-independent-studies
  5. Environmental Working Group, Carpeting Linked to Adult Asthma. 2006. Available at https://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2006/11/carpeting-linked-adult-asthma
  6. Zhishi Guo and Nancy Roache, Characterization of Emissions from Carpet Samples Using a 10-Gallon Aquarium as the Source Chamber. Environmental Protection Agency, 1994.
  7. Green Label Plus, Carpet Emissions Criteria. Available at http://www.carpet-rug.org/green-label-plus.html
  8. Michelle Allsopp et al., Hazardous Chemicals in Carpet. Greenpeace Research Laboratories, 2001. Available at http://www.greenpeace.to/publications/carpet.pdf
  9. Bill Walsh, The Label Game. Healthy Building Network, 2006. Available at http://www.healthybuilding.net/news/2006/06/29/the-label-game
  10. A.T. Hodgson et al., Emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds From New Carpets Measured in a Large-Scale Environmental Chamber. Air Waste, 1993. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8457318
  11. David E. Jacobs et al., Carpets and Healthy Homes. National Center for Healthy Housing, 2008. Available at http://www.nchh.org/Portals/0/Contents/CarpetsHealthyHomes.pdf
  12. Wayne R. Ott and John W. Roberts, Everyday Exposure to Toxic Pollutants. Scientific American, 1998. Available at http://www.skanschools.org/tfiles/folder471/everyday_exposure_to_toxic_chemicals.pdf
  13. Washington Toxics Coalition, Carpeting and Children’s Health – How Flooring Decisions Can Affect Your Home’s Indoor Air Quality. 2000. Available at http://www.watoxics.org/files/carpet-fact-sheet

Sign up for email updates

Thanks for signing up!