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Carpeting: Wall-to-Wall Health Concerns

Carpet manufacturers market their latest products as more environmentally friendly than ever before. However, a consumer has no way to judge the accuracy of these claims.

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If you browse a carpet gallery, you’ll find thousands of carpet choices that are organized by color, pattern, softness, texture and durability. Unfortunately, you typically won’t find a list of the hundreds of chemicals that make up every carpet’s adhesives, backing, fiber, padding and stain-resistant treatments.

That’s a problem when you consider that Environmental Protection Agency estimates that we spend up to 90 percent of our life indoors surrounded by the materials that we use to furnish our homes, many of which can be hazardous for our health.

“There are many chemicals for which no science has been done,” says Hal Levin, who has studied the emissions of indoor products since 1983. “When you’re indoors, you’re in a sealed bottle. You depend on good product selection and ventilation to protect you.”

Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), which is a trade association, has a voluntary testing program that’s meant to reduce the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are emitted, or outgassed, from new carpeting. However, CRI’s program addresses only VOCs, not the hundreds of chemicals and compounds that manufacturers added to their carpeting since the test was established in 1992.

FIBER GROWTH. After annual sales dropped during the economic downturn, the U.S. carpet industry is growing again. According to Floor Covering News, which covers the carpet industry, carpet sales in 2014 were roughly $8.5 billion after 4 consecutive years of modest sales increases.

What’s responsible for the sales increase? One reason is that the U.S. housing market recovered after the economic downtown, according to CRI. Another reason is that over the past 6 years, the carpet industry rebranded itself as an environmentally friendly industry, says Cheryl Simmons, who covers the carpet industry for About.com. We visited eight carpet galleries in the Chicago area, and all of them were full of appropriate buzzwords, such as “eco-friendly” and “sustainable.”

In the past 6 years, the variety of carpeting that’s marketed as environmentally friendly increased, Simmons says. In 2009, manufacturers started to tout synthetic carpet fibers as being “green,” because they were made from recycled materials. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) now can be made out of the plastic material that’s used in soft-drink and water bottles. Almost all major carpet companies sell at least one line that’s made out of recycled PET, which typically costs $3–$4 per square foot, or 75 cents–$1 more than what a comparable carpet that’s made out of nonrecycled PET or nylon costs per square foot.

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Carpeting also might include polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT), or triexta, which is a fiber that was developed by DuPont. The fiber is considered to be renewable, because it’s made, in part, out of cornstarch. PTT carpeting now is sold only by Mohawk under the name SmartStrand. A square foot typically costs $4.50–$6.

PET and PTT carpeting, which are engineered to be stain-resistant and don’t require chemical pretreatments, now account for 36 percent of the U.S. carpet market, according to Floor Covering News. In the past 3 years, these types also stole business away from nylon carpet, which has reigned as the most sought-after carpet for decades but still requires chemical pretreatments for stain resistance. In 2013, the percent of new carpeting that was made of nylon dipped below 50 percent for the first time, according to Floor Covering News.

Nylon has been the king of carpet fibers, because it’s considered to be the longest lasting and most resilient fiber.

In the past 6 years, manufacturers tinkered with the polymer structure of PET and PTT fibers to make the carpeting that’s made from them more durable. In conjunction, manufacturers strengthened the warranty for their PET and PTT carpeting. It now is common to find PET and PTT carpeting that has a 25-year warranty, which is at least 5 years longer than what was typical  6 years ago.

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