While carpets can provide resilient padding beneath tumbling toddlers, and a warm, cozy surface for children playing on the floor, they can also release dust and fumes that cause sniffles, headaches and other health problems.
In winter, when we open windows less, pollutants can build up in indoor air–and collect in carpets–making symptoms worse.
“Wall-to-wall carpets are a sink for dirt, dust mites, molds and pesticide residues. I much prefer smaller washable carpets of natural fiber,” says Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the center for children’s environmental health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Washing in hot water kills dust mites, microscopic creatures whose plentiful droppings are a top asthma and allergy trigger, Dr. Landrigan explains. Another benefit: you can also regularly clean the floor underneath, defeating dust buildup. Just be sure to put a non-slip pad under area rugs.
Wall-to-wall carpeting, which is secured to the floor, cannot be picked up for washing, but that’s only part of the problem. It’s important to keep in mind that wall-to-wall carpet is really a carpeting system, which includes the backing, underlay and various glues. Many synthetic carpeting systems, such as those using nylon or polyester fiber, contain toxic chemicals derived from petroleum.
These “volatile organic chemicals,” or VOCs, can evaporate, or “offgas” out of carpets into the air we breathe, says John Bower, author of “The Healthy House Book (Healthy House Institute, 2001). Often, the glues, backing or carpet pads can be more problematic than the carpet itself. VOCs (also emitted by many cleaners, pesticides, paints, sealants, and pressed woods) are heavier than air. Therefore, along with tracked or blown-in-dust and soot, they settle on the floor — and into carpets. Because children play on the floor, if there’s anything troublesome in the carpet, they get the brunt of it.
Where allergies run in families, some parents are rejecting rugs altogether. “We had this 12-year-old carpet on our lower level, and when my son lay on it to play he got itchy eyes, nasal congestion and sneezing,” says Terri Isidro-Cloudas, a web site producer who lives in Connecticut. “He was developing a lot of respiratory infections. I have asthma, and I didn’t want my son to get it,” she adds.
Terri was right to be concerned: Children can inherit a tendency to asthma, and exposures to allergens, such as dust mites, can trigger the disease. And when it comes to VOCs, Dr. Landrigan and others say, children are more vulnerable to these chemicals than adults are, because their young bodies are so rapidly growing and developing.
Terri didn’t want to just toss out her carpet, adding to the billion square yards of carpet that’s discarded every year, according to “Environmental Building News.” She tried steam cleaning, only to learn that her carpet had mold and mildew — which is incurable, according to the editors of “Environmental Building News.” John Bower confirms this, adding, “Actually, any damp cleaning or shampooing results in wet wall-to-wall carpet, which allows mildew and dust mites to proliferate,” Terri finally felt justified in removing the rug — and decided to stay carpet-free. She had concrete poured over the old vinyl tiles beneath. Radiant heat cables were installed, and covered with a hardwood floor. The result: a warm, cozy, cleanable floor “and energy savings, too,” Terri says.
While Terri proved that there is life, and a good one, after carpet, the other good news is that, if you’re in the market for a new one, there are many healthier choices available now.
This article was reprinted from “The Green Guide” newsletter, a publication of The Green Guide Institute. Since 1994, “The Green Guide” has been a premier consumer source for practical everyday actions benefiting environmental and personal health. Want more practical solutions that benefit the environment and personal health? Subscribe online to The Green Guide.