What flooring materials reduce indoor air quality problems?

Dear EarthTalk: What flooring materials reduce indoor air quality problems?

—Allen R. Linoski, Royal Oak, MI

According to the publishers of Environmental Building News, nearly 70 percent of American floors are covered in carpeting. Whether it”s shag, berber or plush, most carpet fiber is made from nylon, polypropylene, polyester or acrylic, and often treated with chemicals for stain resistance and glued to the floor with toxic adhesives.

Chemical releases from carpets have been blamed for “sick building syndrome,” a situation in which occupants of a building experience acute health effects—such as headaches, rashes and nausea—that diminish or stop when they leave the building. One of the chemicals historically used in glues and released from the carpet”s backing material is 4-PC (4-phenylcyclohexene), which can cause such symptoms. A 2001 report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded, “Poor indoor air quality can reduce a person”s ability to perform specific mental tasks requiring concentration, calculation or memory.”

If you are concerned about indoor air quality, there are several companies, such as Natural Home in California, that sell natural fiber carpets that don”t require toxic adhesives. The National Audubon Society building in New York City, one of the nation”s first “green” office buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, uses carpeting that is 100 percent un-dyed wool. The carpet underlayer is made of jute, a plant fiber, and is tacked down, avoiding the use of toxic glue (except on the stairs). When carpet shopping, look for a green label from the Carpet and Rug Institute, which certifies products with low chemical emissions from volatile organic compounds (VOCs), organic compounds that evaporate readily into the air.

If you want more traditional wood or other hard-surface flooring, avoid materials treated with veneers that emit VOCs, or products made with particleboard, which is often held together with formaldehyde, a possible carcinogen. Other green flooring options to consider include ceramic tiles and linoleum, made with linseed oil, cork, and wood dust—all renewable resources.

CONTACTS: Natural Home, (707) 824-0914, www.naturalhomeproducts.com; U.S. Green Building Council, (202) 828-7422, www.usgbc.org; Carpet and Rug Institute, (800) 882-2246, www.carpet-rug.com