The Health Risks of Carpet
From toxic chemicals to dust mites, Green Living expert, Aida Garcia Toledo talks about the risks of carpet and the healthier alternatives.
Carpets might feel soft and cozy but they are one of the worst possible flooring options for your home because they can expose you to harmful chemicals, dust, dust mites, bacteria, dead skin and a whole host of other allergens. Considering that carpeting accounts for 51% of the total U.S. flooring market, these hazards are potentially a big source of toxicity for families.
It’s especially concerning that many nurseries, playrooms, and play areas often include carpet or an area rug. Children spend a lot of time crawling, laying on, playing and sitting on rugs and carpets. As a result they tend to absorb even more toxic chemicals through skin contact, breathing in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ingestion of carpet (micro)fibers and dust through their hand-to-mouth behavior.
6 Hazardous Substances to Avoid in Carpet and Rugs
What chemicals are we referring to? An EU study identified over 59 hazardous substances in carpets. Among the chemicals found included:
- phthalates: Found in flexible plastics and fragrance chemicals, phthalates are also commonly used in the backing material of carpets. Six types of phthalates were found in carpets. Four, (DEHP, DBP, and BBP) are classified as being toxic to reproduction, acutely toxic to aquatic life, bioaccumulative, and toxic to human health. The other three (DINP, DIDP, and DNOPs ) are suspected of being toxic to reproduction, endocrine disruptors, and developmental toxicants.
- Nonylphenols (NPs) and NonylphenolEthoxylates (NPEOs): These are surfactants that have been phased out of cleaning products in the EU due to their hazard profiles, but are still being used as adhesives in carpet backing. These chemicals are “endocrine disruptors and are known to cause feminisation of male fish.“
- Antimicrobials: Antimicrobial chemicals are often used on carpets to protect against dust mites, moulds, bacteria, fungi and are used in the treatment of carpet fibers and backings.The hazards for biocides used in carpets range from mild-eye and skin irritants to skin sensitizers and reproductive toxicants.
- Flame Retardants: These chemicals are heavily used in the polyurethane foam often used in carpet padding. The problem with flame retardant chemicals is that they dont ‘stick’ to whatever they are sprayed on and actually migrate away easily- exposing you and your family to more of them. Flame retardant chemicals are linked to cancer, impaired fertility, obesity, and neurological and developmental problems, such as hyperactivity and lowered IQ.
- Stain Repellents: PFAS are used as stain repellent finishes for many textiles, including carpets. They are considered in the EU as suspected carcinogens, toxic to reproduction, and may cause developmental disorders as these substances persist in the tissues of organism. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control has identified carpets and rugs as the largest potential sources of significant and widespread PFAS exposures, especially for children
- Heavy metals: Carpets are particularly good at trapping the dirt and toxins brought in on your shoes- including heavy metals. Some heavy metals such as lead or cadmium are neurotoxins, impair human fertility and/or cause harm to unborn children.
While many new rugs and carpets have very obvious chemical smells when you first purchase them- that smell does ‘off gas’ and become less obvious with time. This, however does not mean that once the smell is gone, you’re no longer being exposed to chemicals. In fact, the chemicals continue to migrate away from carpets and rugs through typical use and abrasion. Many of them then adhere to dust – meaning that you and your family are then exposed to the chemicals via inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact.
What to do if you have a rug or carpet that isn’t ‘Green’?
Don’t despair. There are things you can do to decrease your exposure to chemicals from rugs and carpets.
- Allow your new rug ample time to off gas. As we mentioned, rugs and carpets will continue to off gas chemicals for weeks, months and even years but the majority will off gas in the first few days and weeks. If possible, place the rug outdoors or in a well ventilated area for at least a week or until the smell has gone.
- Vacuum frequently (2-3 times a week) with a HEPA filter vacuum
- Consider investing in a high quality air filter that has HEPA and Activated Carbon filters (with at least 5 pounds of carbon).
- Open your windows often: this will allow fresh air to circulate inside your home and allow toxins out.
The least toxic flooring for your home
Now that you know to avoid specific types of rugs and carpets you might wonder what flooring alternatives you can turn to that won’t expose you to additional toxins.
Generally the three safest options include solid wood, tiles and natural linoleum. Here are special tips to keep in mind when shopping for these three options.
- For all three, if possible, opt out of gluing the flooring down and instead try flooring that clicks together or that can be nailed down. When glue is the only option for installation, ask to see certification that shows the adhesive has “ No Added Formaldehyde (NAF), or “ No Added Urea Formaldehyde” which use phenol-based glues and which emit 90 percent less formaldehyde or, at the very least, is CARB 2 compliant.
- Look for 100% FSC certified wood sources. It’s estimated that more than 50% of all imported lumber is illegally sourced which means forests are destroyed and native animals and people displaced as a result. FSC certification, assures strict environmental, economic and social principles.
- Choose zero VOC finishes and water-based finishes and sealants. Look for the GreenGuard Gold seal that confirms very low VOC emissions.
- If you choose natural linoleum or tiles – make sure it’s made in the U.S. as those made overseas are more likely to contain harmful chemicals.
How to Choose the Best Non-toxic Rugs
What can you do to protect your family when choosing floor coverings? While solid flooring, like hardwood floors, are ideal, if you do want an area rug just follow these tips:
- Seek out hand knotted rugs or a rug that specifies it’s non-toxic. Jute, Wool, sisal or 100% cotton are good options.
- Avoid rugs that have backings attached with adhesives that contain formaldehyde (these are usually hand tufted, needle punched rugs, but even natural materials like jute can contain a backing). Brands like Petit Pehr have formaldehyde-free adhesives, which make them a safe option.
- Avoid moth proofing chemicals (usually sprayed on wool carpets).
- When you do purchase a new rug look for the CRI (Carpet and Rug Institute) Green Label Plus logo, which indicates a very low-emitting carpet (in the United States), the German government’s ecolabel Blue Angel, or the Nordic Swan eco-labels
- If you bring a rug home and it smells… return it.
Our favorite Non-toxic Rug Picks
Here are a few of our top non-toxic rug picks that are equally as stylish as they are comfortable underfoot and durable. A few are even machine washable!
Made of eco-friendly 100% cotton and non-toxic dyes, the Lorena Canals machine washable Bereber rug comes in two sizes and will look chic in any room.
Made from hand-tufted 100% looped and high cut pile wool, this adorable pom pom rug is treated with environmentally safe dyes making it safe for the whole family.
Made of eco-friendly natural cotton and free from toxic dyes or contaminants, the Lorena Canals Garden Rug was inspired by the natural colors and textures from the botanical gardens. Woven by hand in India, it features delicate flowers and an elaborate fringe that add comfort and style to any room.
Treated with environmentally safe dyes and hand-tufted using 100% wool, this cute Rainbow rug is naturally stain resistant making it perfect for a nursery or playroom.
Lorena Canals Round ABC Rug
Available in three colors, this bestselling ABC rug is hand made in India from 100% cotton, dyed with non-toxic dyes and is machine washable!
For more non-toxic rug styles, browse our selection of safe and non-toxic rugs.
Non-Toxic Living Tips
Preparing for a newborn? See our 9 simple tips to help you make a safe and welcoming environment free of nasties for your newborn in our article on Prepping for baby’s arrival: a list of non-toxic living tips.
Detoxing your home needn’t be difficult. Here are six simple steps to get you started in our How to detox your home article.