Are Carpets Unhealthy? Many Harm Indoor Air Quality: There Are Nontoxic Options

rugwithdog

Dear EarthTalk: I like the feel of carpeting, but I’m concerned about all the chemicals. What are some good non-chemical (but still soft!) options? — Jennifer Jones, Madison, WI

Modern day carpets, in all their plush and stain-resistant glory, are wonders of technology and help make our homes and workplaces more comfortable. But the typical carpet, made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers, contains dozens of chemicals and gases, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other potential toxins—and they can compromise indoor air quality for years on end and cause dangerous reactions in the sensitive among us, including little ones and the elderly.

Fortunately today there are many green options when it comes to carpeting and alternative floor coverings. Green Depot—the nation’s leading supplier of environmentally friendly building products, services and home solutions with 13 retail stores nationwide—sells a lot of wool carpeting, which is typically all-natural, renewable and is the most logical option for those who want the look and feel of real carpet without the chemical impact. Wool carpeting is pricier than synthetic, but those seeking peace-of-mind might not mind paying a premium. Some leading makers of all-natural wool carpeting include Bloomsburg, Earth Weave, Helios, Natural Home and Woolshire. Wool is also a great material for rug pads, as it dampens sound, inhibits mold and provides insulation. Green Depot’s favorite is Whisper Wool Underlayment.

Some other choices in all-natural carpet include sisal, coir and seagrass—though these all-natural materials tend to be harder than traditional carpeting and as such might take some getting used to underfoot. Contempo Floor Coverings is one of the leaders in this up-and-coming segment of the flooring industry.

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FLOR carpet tiles also allow you to create your own designer patterns like those above.

Another green option is carpet tiles, because small sections rather than entire carpets can be replaced when stains or other problems occur. One particularly green carpet tile manufacturer is FLOR, whose products are made with renewable, recycled and recyclable content. The company also takes back its old carpet tiles for recycling and reconstitution into new recycled fibers and backing materials. FLOR’s products use some synthetic materials, but most styles meet or exceed the Carpet and Rug Institute’s “Green Label Plus” standards for low VOCs. Greenfloors.com offers yet another option for synthetic carpeting made from recycled and recyclable materials, while Mohawk’s Aladdin carpet is made from recycled PET soda bottles.

While carpeting in one form or another is no doubt the softest option, cork flooring is also warm and somewhat cushy. Cork is inherently green because it’s made from the bark of the cork oak tree which grows back every three years with little to no fertilizer or pesticides needed. It’s also resistant to mildews, molds and other unwelcome microbes. Cork flooring is also a nice choice to “warm up” kitchen and bathroom floors. U.S. Floors offers a wide variety of cork and other sustainable flooring options.

Of course, keeping tidy is also key to a healthy indoor environment: Frequent vacuuming of rugs and cleaning of flooring can help reduce exposure to toxins like lead and pesticides that can be tracked in from outside. Using doormats and removing shoes when coming inside can also help mitigate such risks.

CONTACTS: Green Depot, www.greendepot.com; FLOR, www.flor.com; The Carpet and Rug Institute, www.carpet-rug.org; Greenfloors.com, www.greenfloors.com; U.S. Floors, www.usfloorsllc.com.

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Main image at top by Flickr User: origami_potato

About Starre Vartan
Starre Vartan is editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick.com and the author of the Eco-Chick Guide to Life.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Starre, I have to offer a comment to your story. Carpet, even synthetic fiber carpets, are not toxic. Most carpets available in the U.S. are certified to the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus VOC standard – which means the VOC emissions are low to begin with (could be irritating to sensitive individuals, but NOT toxic), and, VOCs are gone for good within about 72 hours. Finally, more than 90 percent of the carpet used in the U.S is made in the United States, making carpet among the last major textile industries still located here. It’s a great story.
    I’d love to talk to you about carpet – it’s a wonderful floorcovering, and the carpet industry has a fantastic track record of environmental innovation.

  2. Hi Bethany,

    I honestly don’t believe the claim that VOC’s are ‘gone for good within 72 hours’ – do you have independently verified tests (not carpet industry) that can verify this? And anything that ‘could be irritating to sensitive individuals’ is NOT safe in my book, for babies, young children, or pregnant women, and people add a child or buy a house in expectation of one, or redo a room for a nursery, this is exactly when new carpet is often installed.

    Honestly, I have extremely high personal health standards (since I can’t control outside air quality and only have some control over the toxins I ingest and inhale) I’m not comfortable with something that emits things that irritate sensitive individuals and takes 72 hours to offgas, even though I’m an adult with a great immune system and excellent health – NOT when there are natural alts available, or as I do in my own home, have a few wool area rugs that last for decades (I picked an oriental one out with my grandma in 1990 and it’s still beautiful today) I can clean and wood/tile floors elsewhere (and I am not in a ‘fancy new green home’ by any means, but a 100-year old Victorian.

    I’m willing to hear what information you have, but nothing I have read in the last decade about carpets makes me comfortable with them in my home save for area rugs. And all the ‘green makeover’ and interior design folks I know also remove them/don’t suggest them.

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