Week of 9/11/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Where can I find carpeting without the strong odors and health concerns of conventional synthetic materials?

—Denise Purdy, via e-mail

Wall-to-wall carpeting, while comfy on the feet, has long been the bane of those sensitive to pollutants. But the chemically sensitive can now rejoice, as carpets made from all-natural materials are now readily available. Companies such as Earth Weave and Natural Home manufacture attractive carpets that are entirely biodegradable and are made of wool, jute, hemp and rubber. Both companies pride themselves on making products free of toxic dyes and mothproofing or stain-repellant chemicals.

These carpets are becoming more popular in part because there are, on average, 120 chemicals in each new piece of conventional synthetic carpeting, including the adhesive. Many of these chemicals are suspected or known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde. According to a spokesperson for Antibody Assay Laboratories, which provides services to health care providers, "These chemicals "off-gas" into the environment, polluting indoor air with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can create symptoms from itchy eyes to shortness of breath, headaches and nausea."

If you must install new synthetic carpet, make sure you air the carpet out well before putting it in place. And consider using less-toxic installation techniques such as that developed by the Ontario, Canada-based TacFast Systems International—a hoop-and-loop method similar to Velcro that eliminates the need for liquid adhesives. Another environmentally conscious backing choice is all-natural wool carpet padding from the Environmental Home Center in Seattle (they ship worldwide). The backing is made from a variety of wool fibers, without dyes or fire retardants, and is mechanically needled (not glued) to biodegradable jute backing.

Getting carpets cleaned is another opportunity to introduce unwanted chemicals into your home. But again, alternatives do exist. Carpet cleaning companies that specialize in all-natural treatments—using enzymes and other natural cleaning agents to get rid of dirt, stains and odors—have sprung up from coast-to-coast. And those can-do folks who want to tackle it themselves can mix up a batch of all-natural carpet deodorizer (one cup baking soda, one cup dried lavender flowers, and 5-6 drops of essential lavender or cedarwood oil) to be sprinkled on offensive areas as needed. Other options include AFM Enterprises" odorless carpet shampoo, which decreases carpet toxicity, and Carpet Guard, which minimizes off gassing.

One additional way to live with traditional carpeting is to fill the room with plants that have been shown to absorb toxins, including aloes, philodendrons and spider plants.

CONTACTS: Earth Weave, (706) 278-8200, www.earthweave.com; Natural Home, (707) 571-1229, www.naturalhomeproducts.com; TacFast Systems, (905) 886-0785, www.tacfastsystems.com; Environmental Home Center, www.environmentalhomecenter.com, (800) 281-9785; AFM Enterprises, (619) 239-0321, www.afmsafecoat.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that computers and electronic devices contain arsenic and other toxins, and if so should I worry about using these products?

—Jen Deeds, McLean, VA

As any murder mystery enthusiast knows, arsenic can be lethal if ingested in large amounts. Electronics manufacturers use it as an efficient conductor of electricity; useful when periodic strong bursts are needed. But don’t worry—the traces of the naturally occurring element that can be found inside your calculator, watch display, television set or computer are not ample enough to hurt you directly.

However, the toxins in electronics do pose community-wide dangers if not disposed of properly. A recent University of Florida study found that many common electronic devices qualify as hazardous materials according to existing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definitions due to the arsenic, mercury and lead within. As such, they should only be discarded in permitted hazardous waste treatment facilities.

Unfortunately, though, many of these discarded products will end up in landfills not equipped to handle hazardous waste, and their arsenic and other toxins can make their way into groundwater. The resulting drinking water contamination has been linked to a wide range of human ailments, including bronchitis, liver cirrhosis and even some cancers. In fact, the EPA considers arsenic to be a carcinogen.

A Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition report predicts that 500 million computers—not to mention many more millions of televisions, calculators and MP3 players—will become obsolete by 2007. While there have been no studies on arsenic specifically, researchers have found that about 40 percent of the toxic lead found in U.S. landfills in recent decades originated with discarded electronics. Further, as much as 80 percent of U.S. electronic waste collected for recycling today is sent to China, India and Pakistan, so the computer you abandon today could end up contaminating the drinking water in a developing country tomorrow.

The best alternative to adding to the waste stream is to upgrade or repair your old computer or TV to keep it humming along happily at home or office—and out of any landfill near or far. Ironically enough, then, by keeping your vintage electronics around, you help safeguard your community and others from toxic waste.

But for those who still feel compelled to buy new and trash the old, the Seattle-based Basel Action Network lists electronics recycling companies by region that adhere to high standards with regard to both environmental and health considerations. In addition, American and Canadian consumers can look for products that are also sold in Europe, as manufacturers who sell there must by law avoid using toxins like arsenic and lead. And if your old model still works at all, it may be a candidate for a donation to a local school or through Gifts In Kind, a clearinghouse for usable used stuff. Lastly, some computer makers, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have programs to take back and recycle old models in-house.

CONTACTS: U.S. EPA Arsenic Compounds Page, www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/hlthef/arsenic.htm; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, www.svtc.org; Basel Action Network, www.ban.org/pledge/Locations.html; IBM PC Recycling, www.ibm.com/ibm/environment/products/pcrservice.shtmlM; Hewlett-Packard Recycling, www.hp.com/hpinfo/globalcitizenship/environment/recycle; Gifts in Kind, www.giftsinkind.org.