Ask EWG: What is new carpet treated with? What can I do?

Question: I've heard nasty rumors regarding the treatment of carpet before it's sold and put into a house. I've heard that it's treated with some really bad chemicals, then rolled up and stored until sold. I'd really like to know what the carpet is treated with and what's the best thing to do.

Answer: Most carpets manufactured today are coated with a mixture of stain-resistant fluorochemicals sold under familiar brand names like Stainmaster, Scotchgard, and nearly anything advertised as "nonstick" or "water repellant." These coatings are effective at preventing stains, but at least one of the impurities and breakdown products (PFOA and similar chemicals) has been identified as a likely human carcinogen and associated with developmental harm in newborn lab animals. There are currently many studies underway looking at the specific effects on humans.

Thanks to a Center for Disease Control biomonitoring study, we know that more than 90% of Americans have PFOA in their blood, but how the chemical got there is still not completely understood. Most scientific consensus now points away from coated frying pans, though a recent study by the New York Department of Health detected PFOA coming off pans at normal use temperatures. Other possible sources include stain resistant coatings on furniture and carpeting, coatings on food products, and water supply contamination.

If you're still using Teflon-coated pans in your kitchen, take a look at our list of cooking alternatives. This is especially imperative if you have pet birds in the house, since "Teflon toxicosis" caused by fumes from nonstick pans can kill birds.

So what's being done about Teflon? Thanks in part to EWG's hard work on perfluorochemicals, in January 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency signed a voluntary agreement with eight companies to virtually eliminate new exposures of these chemicals by 2015. It is impossible to eliminate the old sources of contamination since the chemical will pollute the Earth for thousands of years thanks to its imperviousness to breaking down, but you can avoid new "stain-resistant" coated carpets and furniture, as well as coated paper products like popcorn bags and paper plates. And, by the way, if you do need to replace your aging carpet, limit your contact with the padding installed under it, as the foam can contain PDBEs, neurotoxic fire retardant chemicals.

Want more Ask EWG goodness? Read "Ask EWG: Is mineral-based make-up safer?"

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