Many people covet the “new car smell” that comes of a new car. A similar smell comes along with some new carpeting and is typically a sure sign it is releasing toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home’s air.
VOCs can include highly toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, along with benzene, toluene, perchloroethylene, and more. In the short term, such as immediately after new carpeting is installed, VOCs may cause headaches, nausea, and nerve problems, along with irritation to your eyes, nose, and throat.
Over time, exposure to VOCs has been linked to an increased risk of cancer in animal studies.1 VOCs come from many sources, but those released in your home are potentially the most dangerous because they accumulate in the air (whereas VOCs released outdoors are naturally diluted).
New Carpeting May ‘Flood’ Your Home with VOCs
The largest release of VOCs from new carpeting will occur in the first 72 hours after installation. However, low levels can continue to be emitted for years later (adding to the other VOCs in your home’s air from paints, varnishes, furniture, and other sources).
This is likely one reason why new carpet installation is associated with wheezing and coughing in babies during their first year of life,2 although there are other chemicals of concern as well. As reported by the Ecology Center:3
“Synthetic carpets are made from nylon fibers with a polypropylene backing. Of the chemicals released from carpet, most notable are styrene and 4-phenylcyclohexane (4-PC), both of which come from the latex backing used on 95 percent of carpets.
The ‘new carpet’ aroma is the odor of 4-PC off-gassing, which is an eye– and respiratory-tract irritant that may also affect the central nervous system. The adhesive used to affix the carpet to the floor typically contains benzene and toluene, some of the most harmful VOCs.”
Flame Retardants, Stain Protectors, and Insecticides Common in Carpeting
Carpeting, including its backing, adhesives, and padding, is often treated at the factory with toxic flame retardants, stain protectors, and moth repellants. A report from Greenpeace Research Laboratories explained:4
“The majority of industrially produced carpets contain a range of chemical additives. Chemicals are impregnated during the manufacture of the carpet fiber or are introduced externally as topical treatments on the final product.
The proposed purpose of some of these chemicals is to protect against dust mites, bacteria, molds and fungi. However, the addition of chemicals to carpets results in potential human exposure to hazardous chemicals in the home and other indoor environments.”
Greenpeace research analyzed eight carpet samples and found some contain high levels of endocrine-disrupting organotins, flame retardants, and permethrin (a pesticide), along with low levels of formaldehyde.
Flame-retardant chemicals, like PBDEs, have been linked to serious health risks like infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ scores and behavioral problems in children, hormone disruptions, and various forms of cancer.
In fact, PBDEs were recently identified as one of 17 “high priority” chemical groups that should be avoided to reduce your breast cancer risk.5
When flame retardants are combined with VOCs, pesticides, and the additional chemical cocktail in carpeting (and other synthetic household products), it’s anyone’s guess what the result may be on human health and the environment (but rising rates of allergies, asthma, and chronic diseases give some indication…).
Greening Your Carpet: Tips for Less Toxic Carpeting
If you can, avoid carpeting altogether in favor of less toxic flooring surfaces (like hardwood, bamboo, or stone/tile). If not, it’s important to know how to “green” your carpet.
This takes a bit of due diligence, as even seemingly “healthier” carpets, like those that include recycled materials can be problematic. Some manufacturers are using a byproduct from coal-fired power plants, called coal fly ash, in their recycled carpeting, which is concerning because it may contain toxic heavy metals.6
First, consider carpeting and rugs made from natural materials, like wool. These will (typically) not contain flame-retardants or stain-resistant chemicals and will naturally repel insects. Carpets made from wool make up only a very small percentage of total production (0.4 percent) while nylon has the largest market share (57 percent).7
You can also look for carpeting with the Green Label Plus, which is given to the lowest-emitting carpet, adhesive, and cushion products on the market. The downside is that the Green Label Plus program is industry-run by the Carpet and Rug Institute.
When your carpet is installed (even if it’s Green Label), it’s recommended that you have it unrolled and allow it to air-out in a well-ventilated space for 72 hours prior to installation (such as in a warehouse). If that’s not possible, it’s best to stay elsewhere for the first 72 hours after new carpeting is installed, and keep the area well ventilated to release toxins.
You may also want to consider buying refurbished carpet, or having yours cleaned using non-toxic methods, instead of buying new, which will be better for your health and the environment. If you’ll be disposing of your old carpeting, be aware that pulling up old carpet will release significant amounts of toxins into the air, so precautions should be taken.
Billions of pounds of old carpeting are sent to landfills every year, causing considerable environmental pollution and burden. Check out the Carpet America Recovery Effort to find out if your old carpet can be recycled.8
Water from Laundry Is Releasing Flame Retardants Into the Environment
The issue of household chemicals is complex and stretches far beyond carpeting. Flame retardant chemicals, for instance, are also found in furniture and other household goods. They’ve even been detected in laundry wash water, according to scientists with the Washington Toxics Coalition.9 They tested household dust and wash water and found flame retardant chemicals in all samples tested.
They believe the chemicals are sloughing off couches and TVs, collecting on clothing and washing out in the laundry. From there, they’re going right through wastewater treatment plants and out into local waterways.
Prior studies have shown flame retardants in the Columbia River as well as wildlife in the area, and the new research provides a potential explanation why. Today, it’s estimated that 90 percent of Americans have some level of flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies. The study’s lead author explained:
“Toxic flame retardants are hitchhiking on our clothes and literally coming out in the wash… This study demonstrates for the first time a key way that toxic flame retardants found in our homes are transported to outdoor environments.”
Chemicals in Makeup, Perfume, and Plastics May Trigger Asthma in Children
Toxic chemicals are literally all around us, including in the personal care products, such as makeup and perfume, that many people use daily. One recent study by researchers at the University of Columbia in New York measured chemicals called phthalates – used widely in plastics and personal care products – in the urine of pregnant women. Those with the highest levels had children who were 72 percent more likely to develop asthma.10
And, compared to women with low levels, children born to women with the highest levels of one type of phthalate (di-n-butyl phthalate) had a 78 percent greater risk of asthma. The researchers urged women to check their makeup for the presence of phthalates as well as take other precautions. Said Dr. Robin Whyatt of Columbia University:11
“These chemicals are very widely used in very high volume and they are not generally listed on labels… There are some simple steps families can take. Avoid using plastic containers and as much as you can store your food in glass jars in the fridge… Never microwave in plastic. It is also worth considering cutting back on using any scented products – cosmetics, perfumes, air fresheners and detergents.”
How to Minimize Your Risks from Indoor Air Pollutants
Inhaling toxins in your indoor air that outgas from household items like carpeting, as well as picking them up via household dust, are among the primary sources of toxin exposure. The most effective way to improve your indoor air quality is to control or eliminate as many sources of pollution as you can first, before using any type of air purifier. This includes accounting for molds, tobacco smoke, VOCs from paints, aerosol sprays, and household cleaners, pesticides, phthalates from vinyl flooring and personal care products, pollutants from pressure-treated wood products, radon gas, and more (see tips below).
The next step to take is free—open some windows. Of course, this can only take you so far, but it’s an important and simple step. Next, since it is impossible to eliminate ALL air contaminants, one of the best things you can do is incorporate a high-quality air purifier. At present, and after much careful review and study, I believe air purifiers using Photo Catalytic Oxidation (PCO) seem to be the best technology available. Aside from using an air purification system, there are a number of other steps you can take to take charge of your air quality and greatly reduce the amount of air pollutants generated in your home:
- Vacuum your floors regularly using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner or, even better, a central vacuum cleaner that can be retrofitted to your existing house if you don’t currently have one. Standard bag or bagless vacuum cleaners are another primary contributor to poor indoor air quality. A regular vacuum cleaner typically has about a 20-micron tolerance. Although that’s tiny, far more microscopic particles flow right through the vacuum cleaner than it actually picks up! Beware of cheaper knock-offs that profess to have “HEPA-like” filters—get the real deal.
- Increase ventilation by opening a few windows every day for 5 to 10 minutes, preferably on opposite sides of the house. (Although outdoor air quality may be poor, stale indoor air is typically even worse by a wide margin.)
- Get some houseplants. Even NASA has found that plants markedly improve the air! For tips and guidelines, see my previous article “The 10 Best Pollution-Busting Houseplants.”
- Take your shoes off as soon as you enter the house, and leave them by the door to prevent tracking in of toxic particles.
- Discourage or even better, forbid, tobacco smoking in or around your home.
- Switch to non-toxic cleaning products (such as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and vinegar) and safer personal care products. Avoid aerosols. Look for VOC-free cleaners. Avoid commercial air fresheners and scented candles, which can outgas literally thousands of different chemicals into your breathing space.
- Avoid powders. Talcum and other personal care powders can be problematic as they float and linger in the air after each use. Many powders are allergens due to their tiny size, and can cause respiratory problems.
- Don’t hang dry-cleaned clothing in your closet immediately. Hang them outside for a day or two. Better yet, see if there’s an eco-friendly dry cleaner in your city that uses some of the newer dry cleaning technologies, such as liquid CO2.
- Upgrade your furnace filters. Today, there are more elaborate filters that trap more of the particulates. Have your furnace and air conditioning ductwork and chimney cleaned regularly.
- Avoid storing paints, adhesives, solvents, and other harsh chemicals in your house or in an attached garage.
- Avoid using nonstick cookware, which can release toxins into the air when heated.
- Ensure your combustion appliances are properly vented.
- Make sure your house has proper drainage and its foundation is sealed properly to avoid mold formation.
- The same principles apply to ventilation inside your car—especially if your car is new—and chemicals from plastics, solvents, carpet, and audio equipment add to the toxic mix in your car’s cabin. Like the smell of new carpeting, that “new car smell” can contain up to 35 times the health limit for VOCs “making its enjoyment akin to glue-sniffing.”12
Additionally, you may want to consider an active form of air purification, rather than passive air filtration. I personally use two of our Pure & Clear air purifiers to constantly purify the air in my home, There is not a filter in these units; they merely circulate particles that decimate VOCs and mold spores that happen to be in the air. For even more information, see “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality” issued by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.