Piling It On

When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came down with “sick building syndrome” in its Washington, D.C. headquarters back in 1988, the irony was lost on no one. Health problems there erupted after installation of new carpeting, but the cause was never clearly identified. Suspicion hovered around chemical by-product emissions from carpet backing or adhesives, including something called 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PC). The EPA finally replaced the carpet with a different, urethane-backed version, which solved the problem.

In 1992, at her Dedham, Massachusetts lab, Dr. Rosalind Anderson killed a quarter of her test mice with air drawn from carpet samples she had heated. EPA scientists ran similar tests and failed to duplicate Anderson’s alarming results. That, says Indiana house-builder John Bower, is because the EPA didn’t precisely duplicate Anderson’s protocol. Bower and his chemically-sensitive wife, Lynn, have written books on environmental illnesses and healthy house construction.

The carpet industry has its own scientific experts who say there’s nothing to worry about, but with as many as 40 chemicals in every new piece of carpet, there’s reason for concern. For those with multiple chemical sensitivity, bare ceramic tile seems to be the best answer. Some consumers avoid wall-to-wall floor covering, preferring all-cotton or wool area rugs over wood, ceramic or inert vinyl flooring. All-wool carpeting is available from Carousel Carpet Mills and Helios Carpets, and cotton carpets are made by Dellinger. But even natural fibers collect particulates like lead or hydrocarbons tracked in from outside, and vacuuming, says Bower, doesn’t remove microscopic particles, it just blows them around and re-deposits them. “Carpet is a reservoir for this stuff,” he says. “Then you put the kids down to play on it because it’s soft. But it’s a horrible place for kids to play.”

That “New Carpet” Smell

Some floor covering problems are theoretical; what is unquestionably true is that many carpet installers, who for years used adhesives to lay fresh carpet in enclosed spaces, have been so badly affected by health problems that they can no longer work. Complaints range from skin reactions, nausea and vomiting to assorted, sometimes severe, headaches and body pain or swelling. But despite such anecdotal evidence, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) hasn’t identified notable carpet-based health hazards; instead, it says that variations in the manufacturing process may lead to occasional “bad” carpet batches. And although 4-PC is the chemical most responsible for the “new carpet” smell many find irritating, CPSC exonerates it as a danger to health.

The Carpet and Rug Institute began carpet testing and labeling in the early 90s to mollify scared consumers. It strengthened the program in 1994 after complaints that it didn’t warn about potential hazards, and provided inadequate testing. The Institute today says new carpets emit a tiny fraction of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) other building products exude, and no scientific correlation has been made between illness and carpet.

Manufacturers have been reformulating adhesives and seam sealants since 1991 to reduce solvent levels and cut VOC emissions. Some now claim VOC levels of zero; low-VOC products are available from all manufacturers. Meanwhile, mechanical adherence methods with no glues or solvents have become available. TacFast, a hook-and-loop method based on Velcro, holds carpet in place and allows easy removal when renovating.

For those wedded to wall-to-wall, carpet labeling, combined with either mechanical installation or zero-VOC adhesives, adds up to far lower emission levels today than was the case 10 years ago. For the truly chemically sensitive, hard flooring and natural fibers help considerably. John and Lynn Bower are just finishing their new home, which John says has no carpets at all, not even natural fiber area rugs.

Natural fiber rug problems can be minimized by removing carpets during renovations, cleaning them regularly by taking them up and beating them outdoors, and placing them where they won’t be walked over by feet fresh from the outdoors. Conversely, problems with other manufactured carpeting, and the adhesives used to glue it down, continue to cause headaches both metaphorical and real.

And don’t ask the National Audubon Society headquarters in New York City about their undyed, pure wool carpeting from New Zealand, carefully selected as minimally toxic and environmentally-safe. It was so critter-friendly it recently birthed a major moth infestation, forcing a pesticide application to resolve the problem.