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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.

Unfortunately, no consensus exists on how long that the latest PET and PTT carpeting will last, because the new fibers have been on the market for only a few years, Simmons says. Carpet samples typically have a performance label on the back that supposedly gives you some idea, on a scale of 1–5, as to how long that a carpet should last. Manufacturers say performance-label scores are calculated by measuring the number of simulated footsteps that a carpet can withstand before showing signs of wear. A carpet that’s rated 1 is expected to last 10 years or less; carpeting that’s rated at 5 is expected to last at least 25 years.

We don’t find those labels to be helpful. We looked at hundreds of samples, and almost all of them had a performance-label score in the 3–5 range.

Also, no standard exists for performance testing, so almost every manufacturer does its own testing. In other words, experts tell us that it’s impossible to use performance labels to compare carpeting from different companies.

LABEL QUESTIONS. A performance label isn’t the only label that you’ll find on the back of carpet samples. At the eight carpet galleries that we visited, we found that the majority of carpet samples were certified by Green Label Plus (GLP), which is CRI’s voluntary indoor-air-quality testing program, to identify types of carpet that include low emissions of VOCs, such as formaldehyde.

VOCs in carpeting release gases into the air, EPA says. When people are exposed to VOCs, they might experience symptoms that range from eye, nose and throat discomfort to dizziness, fatigue and headaches, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, not only do carpet fibers emit VOCs, but the carpet’s backing fabric, the carpet’s padding and the adhesives that are used in carpet installation also release VOCs.

VOCs are released in the highest amounts right after carpeting is installed, says Gillian Miller, who is a staff scientist at Ecology Center, the mission of which is to educate consumers about keeping families healthy and safe. EPA says VOC emissions from new carpeting typically fall to low levels 48–72 hours after installation if the installation space is well-ventilated. Under the GLP test, the maximum amount of VOC emissions that are allowed 24 hours after a carpet sample is manufactured is 0.5 milligrams per square meter, which is lower than the VOC emissions of other interior products, such as adhesives and paints.

Levin tells us that the GLP program has made a big difference in the reduction of formaldehyde, which was present in carpeting at “30–100 times the concentration” of today’s carpeting before GLP was introduced in 1992.

However, GLP testing is conducted just four times per year, which means that it might not catch bad batches of carpet that emit more than 0.5 milligrams of VOCs per square meter, says Walt Bader, who is an expert on industrial chemicals. Furthermore, GLP is a pass/fail test, and no one except the testing laboratory and the carpet manufacturer sees the results. In other words, if a carpet sample doesn’t pass, a manufacturer can submit other samples until it receives a passing grade, Levin says.

“If it takes 5 or 10 or 100 tests to get one sample that passes, the product is certified and labeled,” he says.

Finally, the GLP program hasn’t evolved to study chemicals and compounds beyond VOCs.

“By choosing a Green Label Plus product, you’re taking the first step toward buying a healthier carpet, but there are a whole host of chemicals that might still be present in that carpet,” says Breeze Glazer, who is a sustainability expert with the design firm Perkins+Will.

Unfortunately, GLP is the only labeling program that addresses any chemicals in residential carpeting.

BEYOND VOCs. We spoke with five experts on indoor air pollution who tell us that more transparency is needed regarding, as Glazer puts it, the “host” of chemicals and compounds that are found in carpeting’s backing fabric, padding and stain-resistant and soil-resistant treatments.

“The consumer probably won’t know that these [chemicals] are in the carpet they’re purchasing,” says James Vallette of Healthy Building Network (HBN), which is dedicated to reducing the use of toxic chemicals that are in building products.

A carpet’s backing fabric includes a bonding adhesive that holds together carpet fibers. Backing fabric typically is made out of an eight-hundredths-of-an-inch-thick polypropylene material that’s called Action Bac, which experts say is regarded generally as a safe plastic.

However, backing fabric that includes additional layers besides Action Bac is likely to be made out of some combination of toxic chemicals, according to HBN. No one knows how many backing fabrics contain these toxic chemicals, because few manufacturers disclose the composition of their carpeting.

HBN says some backing fabric is made out of 1,3-Butadiene, MDA, styrene or vinyl acetate—all of which are carcinogens. Some carpet backing is made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which has been linked to reproductive issues and respiratory illnesses.

Vallette tells us that manufacturers increasingly use recycled materials in PVC backing fabric because of pressure to be “green” and to lower their manufacturing costs. However, just because these materials are recycled doesn’t mean that they’re healthy, he says. HBN found that in many cases, the PVC is recycled from sheathing that was on cable and wire scraps that were made in the 1970s. These scraps were coated in fly ash from coal-fired power plants and asphalt from roads. As a result, HBN found that the recycled carpet backing contained high levels of lead, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls, which are toxic compounds that were banned by most countries (including the United States) in the 1970s.

Carpet padding is the underlayer of carpeting that provides comfort, insulation and noise reduction. Padding is made out of many different materials, but typically it’s made out of recycled foam, Vallette says.

Experts are concerned about the use of recycled foam, because it can contain polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are flame retardants that have been banned by European Union since 2004 over health concerns, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG), which specializes in toxic-chemical research and safety.

No federal action has been taken to ban or restrict PBDEs in the United States, but the production of PBDEs is banned in California and Maine, according to Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is an environmental action group. Most recycled U.S. carpet padding is made out of PBDE-containing foam that’s imported from Europe, Vallette says.

“The U.S. is a dumping ground for PBDE-soaked foams,” he says. “Ideally there would be a recycling process that would strip the PBDEs out of the foam, and the foam would be recyclable without the health impacts.”

One final source of toxic chemicals: the stain-resistant treatments that are applied to most carpets at the manufacturing plant. Until 2008, these treatments typically contained C-8 compounds. This produced perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is a synthetic compound that accumulates in a person’s body over time and has been linked to a variety of developmental issues and other health risks, EPA says.

CRI says the U.S. carpet industry started to reduce its use of C-8 compounds in 2008 and plans to eliminate PFOA by 2015. However, no company from China has agreed to eliminate PFOA from carpet, EWG says, and you typically can’t tell where carpet is made and, thus, whether it includes PFOA.

In the past 6 years, carpet companies used compounds C-4 and C-6 in stain-resistant treatments that the companies say are less toxic than is C-8, Miller says. Unfortunately, no independent consensus exists that C-4 and C-6 are any safer than C-8 is, Vallette says.

Manufacturer Mohawk says it developed a solution—a stain-resistant treatment that won’t wash or wear off over time or produce chemicals that could be absorbed into consumers’ skin. Mohawk introduced its Nanoloc stain-fighting technology in December 2014, and it says Nanoloc is infused “into the core of the fiber” through nanotechnology instead of being topically applied after the carpet is made. Nanoloc is on all SmartStrand/PTT carpets, and no other carpet company has a similar stain-resistant treatment.

Mohawk says Nanoloc is safe, because it meets the OEKO-TEX Standard 100, which is an independent European certification and testing system for harmful substances in textiles. However, HBN and NRDC warn that sufficient testing hasn’t been done on the health effects of nanotechnology-based products.

MAKING LISTS. That’s just a few of the newer chemicals and compounds that have been detected in carpeting. So how can a consumer find out the full extent of what’s in his/her carpet? Good question. Unfortunately, no perfect solution exists.

In 2012, 14 carpet manufacturers started to post on their websites Health Product Declarations (HPDs), which are reports of what a carpet contains. Health Product Declaration Collaborative, which is a group of building designers, contractors, manufacturers and researchers, established the HPD program to provide a way to understand the “contents and potential health impacts” of building products, such as carpet. Wendy Vittori, who is the executive director of HPD Collaborative, tells us that the group is developing a uniform standard, so all manufacturers can report the contents of their products in the same way, and consumers can compare accurately and make a choice based on all of the information that’s available. She says the program won’t be ready for 2 or 3 years. For now, HPDs consist of a technical list of chemicals that’s meant for architects, contractors, designers and engineers, she says.

A few manufacturers now post Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) instead of HPDs. The EPD program, which is a separate voluntary program that’s organized by International EPD System, measures the effects of carpeting on the environment (outdoor air and water pollution) rather than on human health (indoor air pollution). Still, the vast majority of carpet products have no EPD or HPD.

In 2012, Perkins+Will published The Transparency Project, which is a free online database of building materials. It lists substances in building materials, including carpeting, that are known to have hazardous health effects. If you’re able to find the list of substances that are included in a particular carpet, you can go to the database and search whether the chemical has possible health effects. Unfortunately, even if you found such a list, it would be impossible to tell what quantity of substances is in your carpet and how those substances interact and react with each other. In other words, the average consumer won’t be able to look up a carpet and determine its possible health risks.

In 2013, HBN launched the Pharos Project, which evaluates at least 1,600 building products and components from 296 manufacturers in 13 major product categories, including carpeting. The project also profiles at least 34,000 chemicals and materials for 22 health and environmental hazards.

Unfortunately, we found that the Pharos Project is about as useful to the average carpet-buying consumer as is The Transparency Project, because you can’t determine the levels of substances that are in your carpet. In other words, if you’re buying carpet or if you already have carpet, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what goes into the material that’s covering the floor.

“In America, we assume things are safe until they’re proven harmful,” Levin says. “As far as we know, we don’t suffer from bad indoor air quality.”

Unfortunately, we just don’t know a lot about the chemicals and compounds that are in carpet.

Lauren Arcuri has been writing about science and consumer issues since 2007. She’s written for About.com, Dartmouth Medicine Magazine and Proto.

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