When I was four years old, I used to play "The Wizard of Oz" on a flowered
carpet with the boy downstairs. We'd spin around in the middle of our field of poppies
until, like Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, we'd fall down in a swoon. These days, however,
you don't have to pretend in order for a carpet to make you feel faint. If you suffer
headaches, dizziness, or even tremors while indoors, and your symptoms abate in open air,
your trouble could be just underfoot.
Although it may look innocent enough just lying there, synthetic carpeting contains
volatile organic compounds (VOCs), petrochemicals that rise into the air you breathe. The
Environmental Protection Agency has identified 900 of these pollutants commonly wafting
indoors. Synthetic carpeting contributes carcinogens such as benzene, formaldehyde, and
sty-rene and neurotoxins such as toluene and xylene to that unhealthy ether. Pregnant
women, crawling babies, and romping children are especially vulnerable to fumes.
While "offgassing" drops markedly several months after installation, carpets
can issue these fumes for as long as five years in amounts troublesome to the chemically
sensitive. Old or new, carpeting also absorbs allergenic dust and mold, as well as VOCs
from pesticides and cleaning agents.
Following consumer complaints about environmental sickness, in 1991 the attorneys
general of 26 states petitioned the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission to require
warning labels on carpets, but to no avail. To date, the EPA maintains that there is no
evidence that synthetic carpet causes health problemsa curious disclaimer given that
in 1988 the agency removed 27,000 square feet of new carpeting from its own headquarters
after rampant staff illnesses. (Nineteen of those EPA workers have sued for $40 million.)
The regulatory vacuum has left the $9.5- billion-a-year carpeting industry ample room
to manufacture soothing hype about its wares. The Carpet and Rug Institute recently
unveiled its "Green Tag" program, a carpet-testing system that allows the
industry to issue itself a seal of "environmental responsibility"a program
the attorneys general of New York, Vermont, Connecticut, and Oregon have declared
Until a green tag on new carpeting represents more than greenwashing, consumers should
stick with natural fibers. Organically grown wool, cotton, ramie, or goat hair can be more
expensive than nylon, but cost less in anxiety and hold up well. Sisal (a type of hemp) or
coir (a fiber from coconuts), are cheaper alternatives. (Jute, however, should be avoided,
as it's often treated with pesticides.)
Check the backings. Tufted fibers are usually affixed to the carpet with an adhesive
that contains 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PC), an eye and respiratory-tract irritant that can
also affect the central nervous system. (That distinctive "new-carpet" aroma is
the odor of 4-PC offgassing.) Find a manufacturer that uses untreated rubber or latex, or
avoid the hassle altogether by choosing a backing-free, flat-woven dhurrie or kilim.
Additionally, be careful of the carpet's cushioning. Opt for an untreated wool or
camel's hair felt underlay rather than synthetic foams.
Finally, if a carpet must be glued down rather than tacked, try an adhesive that
explicitly states it's low-VOC or water-based.
Even a safe carpet, alas, will not keep itself clean. Yet many commercial
carpet-cleaning solutions and powders have been linked to outbreaks of Kawasaki Syndrome,
an inflammation of blood vessels that is the leading cause of acquired heart disease in
infants and youngsters. Again, seek out low-VOC-content and plant-based cleansers. A
fine-particle high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in your vacuum cleaner will
help suck up molds and dust mites in between cleanings.
As it warms bare feet, absorbs noise, and protects children from bumps and bruises, a
carpet can add a lot to the comfort of home. Natural floor coverings can enhance that
sense of security.
Mindy Pennybacker edits The Green Guide, the newsletter of Mothers and Others for a
Livable Planet, 40 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011; phone (888) ECO-INFO.