Ask the EcoTeam: My New Carpet is Off-Gassing!

Dear EcoTeam,

The new carpet in my apartment is off-gassing, and I’m dizzy and nauseous from the fumes. How long will it take to finish this process? Can I speed it up? Is my landlord obligated to do anything? Also, I need a new mattress. After this experience with the carpet, I wonder what I should do, because I’ve heard they can off-gas, too. Can you tell me which products and materials to avoid and how to assess their health impacts? Healthier products are often out of my price range.
—Suffering in Oakland

Dear Sufferer,

Off-gassing is the evaporation of chemicals from a material. Furniture, plastics, vinyl products, paint, new cars, clothing, cosmetics, water bottles, carpet, and mattresses do it, to name just a few. Off-gassing materials emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and small particulate substances throughout the life of the material.

An amazing resource, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) Toxicant and Disease Database is a searchable online database that summarizes links between chemical contaminants and approximately 180 human diseases or conditions. The CHE points out that more than 80,000 chemicals have been developed, distributed, and discarded into the environment over the past fifty years. Most have not been tested for toxic effects in humans or animals, and some are common in air, water, food, homes, work places, and communities.

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.

Each of us reacts differently to the chemical stew we face on a daily basis, and recognizing such health effects may be difficult. Typical reactions to new carpet VOCs include headaches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, and asthmatic reactions. Longer-term effects are also possible; the CHE lists benzene as having a strong link to leukemia and lymphomas, while styrene is associated with cognitive impairment and hearing loss, among other conditions.

Carpets can emit VOCs for five years or possibly more, although the off-gassing decreases significantly several months after installation. The Environmental Protection Agency advises ventilating well for at least 72 hours after installation by opening windows and using fans that move air directly to the outdoors. Continue to use fans during installation and for several weeks afterward. Another recommendation is to ask the installer to vacuum the new carpet with a HEPA filter vac and clean with a hot water extraction, which can remove a good portion of the VOCs. If possible, take a vacation soon afterward.

When there’s a choice, the best alternative is to rip out wall-to-wall carpet and use area rugs instead. Even the best wall-to-wall carpet is a haven for dust mites, mold spores, and lingering VOCs, and is usually one of the largest hosts of contaminants in our homes. If this isn’t possible, pick a natural fiber carpet such as wool with a natural backing. Pick the least toxic adhesive or, even better, no adhesive.
The healthier choice can be more expensive, but those with asthma, respiratory problems, and environmental illnesses may need to choose it. The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition’s Web site includes some very helpful pointers about new carpet installation. Since you’re a renter, the burden will likely be on you to find and present these healthier options to your landlord, who might be willing to make a change if these products cost the same as conventional carpeting, are easy to procure, and meet their sensibilities.

Now, about that mattress. We spend about a third of our lives in bed. Most standard mattresses are made of polyurethane foam, which can emit toluene and are treated with water-, stain-, and wrinkle-resistant chemicals such as formaldehyde. In California, flame retardants may contribute the biggest chemical load; in the ‘80s, the state began requiring mattresses to be fire-resistant because of concerns about fallen cigarettes. Furniture and mattress manufacturers began using polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, as flame retardants, and this group of chemicals, which are highly bioaccumulative and toxic, became the standard. PBDEs can cause permanent neurological and developmental damage including deficits in learning, memory and hearing, changes in behavior, and delays in sensory-motor development. They are especially dangerous to children, because they accumulate in fatty tissue and are passed on in breast milk.

PBDEs cause ecological harm too. The Environmental Working Group found PBDEs in six kinds of commonly eaten San Francisco Bay fish—worse yet, in every fish sampled. Fish caught in 2002 by local anglers were compared with archived samples from 1997, and PBDE levels had more than doubled in halibut and more than tripled in striped bass—the two most commonly eaten species, and key indicators of overall contamination. Assemblymember Wilma Chan authored legislation that as of 2008 bans some of the most toxic forms of PBDEs.

If you’re shopping for a new bed and money is no object, you’ll find an array of chemical-free wool, organic cotton, and natural latex mattresses. Buy one if you are able. (Search online—wool mattresses from Midwest manufacturers are reasonably priced.) Most natural mattresses cost about the same as a high-end synthetic mattress and box spring; a queen size organic cotton mattress will run around $1,500. For those juggling money, an organic cotton or wool futon might be affordable for $600 or less. Wool futons last a long time and can be a good investment. Buying an organic cotton or wool mattress barrier pad can help cut the toxins for those of us needing a lower-cost option. If you have access to a used mattress that you feel comfortable using, they’re also a good choice in regards to off-gassing.

A few final rules for minimizing VOCs: Buy used goods—the VOCs associated with their production have diminished over time, especially with cars and furniture. Choose options like low-or no-VOC paint, which is now widely available and fairly economical. Always stay away from polyvinyl chloride, which is commonly found in linoleum, upholstery, and shower curtains. If you have breathing problems, allergies, or environmental illness, take special care. Help support the work of groups working to ensure that all people have access to healthy indoor and outdoor air such as the Collaborative on Health and the Healthy Building Network, which advocates for healthier building products. —Beck Cowles

Beck Cowles is the Ecology Center’s information services program manager. [Photo by xjyxjy]


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30 thoughts on “Ask the EcoTeam: My New Carpet is Off-Gassing!

  1. Loved the article. One small but important error: linoleum does not equal vinyl tile. While vinyl tile is made from polyvinyl chloride, linoleum is made with linseed oil.

    • Be careful of linseed oil also, some of us that are sensitive have natural and man made oil reactions. I bought furniture for gazebo and treated in fall with it. and even though in shed over winter could not go near for the entire summer even with outside air. very frustrating, wound up painting. I wish paints would be available with little or no VOC like brands indoors. unfortunately not for outdoors. then add the darn cushion on top containing foams advised against. frustrating.

      • I have to correct myself on above article it was teak oil on the furniture not linseed, although I have linseed problems also.
        Mary

      • You should check out milk paints for low VOC furniture paints and they can be used outdoors. This is the type of paint previously used to paint barns so it’s very durable and low VOC.

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  3. I have been looking for a non-toxic flooring for the bedroom in a house I am moving into. One of the largest carpet manufacturers, Mohawk, claims that their Smart Strand with Dupont Sonora is made of 37% corn sugar and that is has no formaldehyde and is “low VOC,” but it is very difficult to get specific information out of them unless you go through one of their distributors. This makes me suspicious that their product may not really be as “green” as they advertise. Can you share any info on this?

    Also, I would like to see a date on this article, as things are always changing, particularly in the development of “green” products.

  4. “I have been looking for a non-toxic flooring for the bedroom in a house I am moving into. One of the largest carpet manufacturers, Mohawk, claims that their Smart Strand with Dupont Sonora is made of 37% corn sugar and that is has no formaldehyde and is “low VOC,” but it is very difficult to get specific information out of them unless you go through one of their distributors. This makes me suspicious that their product may not really be as “green” as they advertise. Can you share any info on this?”

    Hi Janet,

    I am also looking for new carpet and was told that the Mohawk Sonora is the best option. I would be interested to see
    what what you fond out on this as I am just starting my research. The carpet company advised that I read this website
    for more info on the subject. It claims that carpet is one of “lowest emitters of VOCS in an indoor setting”. I am very
    confused by this information.
    see website here
    http://www.carpet-rug.org/residential-customers/selecting-the-right-carpet-or-rug/green-label.cfm

  5. Thanks for your question about selecting non-toxic flooring. The article you are referring to on carpet off-gassing originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Terrain. We can provide some additional thoughts on the matter:

    There is a non-profit organization in Oakland called Build It Green (BIG) which provides a great deal of information on its website, including a green building product directory, an Ask An Expert feature, and many fact sheets, including one titled “Carpet”: http://www.builditgreen.org/build-it-green-fact-sheets/

    In BIG’s fact sheet, they suggest looking for these features in “Greener” Carpets: Natural fibers, Low VOCs, Natural stain resistance, Natural jute backing, Lower offgassing of toxic chemicals, Made with recycled content.

    The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) referred to in the fact sheet offers a Green Label Plus Program. Carpets that have met their certification requirements can be found on their website by searching their “Find Green Label and Green Label Plus Products” menu: http://www.carpet-rug.org/commercial-customers/green-building-and-the-environment/green-label-plus/carpet-and-adhesive.cfm

    The Green Label testing is designed to identify “carpet with very low emissions of VOCs to help improve indoor air quality.” Carpet emissions are tested for the following chemicals: Acetaldehyde; Benzene; Caprolactam; 2-Ethylhexanoic Acid; Formaldehyde; 1-Methyl-2-Pyrrolidinone; Naphthalene; Nonanal; Octanal; 4-Phenylcyclohexene; Styrene; Toluene; Vinyl Acetate. Carpets must be within the “maximum emission factors” of each of these chemicals. These maximum levels are listed in a chart downloadable from the CRI website. They offer similar testing for adhesives used for carpet installation, and carpet cushions.

    The BIG fact sheet also suggests the following practices for improving indoor air quality: consider minimizing the amount of carpeting in the home in favor of other options such as wood, bamboo, tile, cork, and natural linoleum. Look for carpets made from natural fibers such as wool, jute, sisal, coir, and seagrass, and that have not been through chemical treatments such as permanent stain resistance, mothproofing, and anti-microbial agents such as fungicides and mildewcides. Felt or jute padding is preferable to foamed plastic or synthetic rubber padding. Air out the carpet for as long as possible before installation. Vacuum carpets often. Use a walk-off mat in entry areas to reduce tracking of pollutants from outdoors.

    If you do choose carpeting as your floor covering, here is some carpet installation advice from the book “Green Remodeling” by David Johnston: open all windows and set up an exhaust fan; close all vents; vacuum often; change furnace filters often; and consider staying out of the house for a few days after installation. Tack-down installation is preferable to glue-down. Use non-toxic, fragrance-free carpet shampoos for cleaning. If carpet gets wet, dry it out as quickly as possible to avoid microbial growth.

    The book “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” by Paula Baker Laporte, et al, also suggests using tacking strips for carpet installation. These are nailed, screwed, or glued down around the perimeter of the room. If gluing, be sure to select a low- or no-VOC adhesive. If using wool carpeting, verify it has not been mothproofed. Choose a carpet with little or no odor. See if the carpet supplier will “warehouse” the carpet for you, unrolling it and airing it out before delivery. Carpeting with woven backing is preferable to rubberized backing. Use a vacuum cleaner with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. Establish a no-shoes policy indoors to reduce tracking in pollutants from outdoors.

    For further reading on selecting least-toxic textiles, The Healthy Building Network (HBN) and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) have published a guide called “The Future of Fabric”. Although it is geared toward the health care industry, it contains a lot of useful information on the subject of healthier textile choices in general:
    http://www.healthybuilding.net/healthcare/FutureOfFabric.pdf

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    • Do you know the brand or type of glue used? The toxicity of products can range quite a bit depending on ingredients used by the manufacturer. Do you have any further information about the glue?

  7. I need a bit of help also and I see this site is wonderful for green answers. I have been looking for a car for 7 yrs. now, since I traded a vehicle in and reacted to a 16,000 car. I was disorientated, wasn’t sure where I was. Light headed, unbalances my nose and eyes were blurred and burning in throat and lungs. I tried washing it out professionally thinking it was cleaning chemicals since this was my first reaction to a car. Didn’t work, realized it was the dash, seats, anything material within, covering didn’t help. my parents bought it from me and I got dad’s ’94 buick wagon. Since then I have run it to the ground. Test drove 23 cars so far. Rented about 8 cars, all reacted the same way to them. I don’t know what to do. Since older cars were crushed a few yrs. back and all the cars I tested were anywhere from 2000 up with the same reactions. I worry that now the wagon has 1,000s in in repairs and the body is rusting out, what will I do for transportation to anywhere. I heard certain volvos were allergy friendly and had passed many outgassing issues in sweden but I tried two of them and they didn’t work either.

    Anyone have any suggestions??? I have tried, baking and airing, convertibles thinking better aired out, hot water washing the interiors a few times, covering with towels etc, none of those work, help

    • Hello Mary — There is an Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan (ecocenter.org) that is similar but not directly related to our Ecology Center here in Berkeley. They issue excellent information on new car smell and plastics in automotives in their “Guide to Chemicals in Cars”. Check out their site HealthyStuff.org as the best resource for answering your car/health questions. “Researchers tested more than 200 of the most popular 2011- and 2012-model vehicles for chemicals that off-gas from parts such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats, in the ratings posted at HealthyStuff.org. These chemicals contribute to “new car smell” and a variety of acute and long-term health concerns…”

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  9. if someone is 5 months pregnant and has all organic furniture in the nursery and adds one that is low voc but not organic, does that cancel out the expensive organic baby furniture? and the carpet is at least 4 years old, has been green cleaned and we use a heap vacumn. How much off gassing is left, they say it is bad to rip out but is it worse to leave in the nursery in terms of emitting toxins? what about putting a green piece of carpet over it…will the offgassing still leak out?

  10. you suggest ripping carpet out and using area rugs. but what about the flooring? doesn’t it probably have toxic glue, varnish, etc? what do you do about that? we have been told that if i am preganant we shouldnt rip out the carpet….what is best for my fetus and new baby. thanks so much!

    • If the carpet is not glued down it should be fine. You yourself would be better off not tearing out the carpet, but having someone (significant other or friend) do it for you poses no harm. Use a carpet knife to cut it in smaller strips so its easy to carry out. You will likely be shocked at how much dirt is under there even though you have a great vacumme.

      If you don’t plan to replace the carpet with another type of flooring, make sure you check the sub-floor (concrete underneath) before destroying the carpet. If your home has settled and has a lot of cracks you won’t want to look at that. If the subfloors are bad you will have loose chunks of cement underneath and would need to get it repaired. If you have wood subfloors, that won’t apply obviously. :)

      The room will be much cooler, your best bet is probably to have a flooring salesperson come out and give you some ideas and estimates. Most don’t charge for the service and there is no obligation. It’s much easier to assess with eyes on the project. Good luck!

  11. My question is about used carpets being poaced on the bottom of a fish pond to help seal the pond from leaking through a sand layer. Do you know of any environmental problem with using carpet this way.

    Thanks for any advice.

    Bill

  12. We had new carpet installed the day after Christmas last year. Two months later (February) at a routine physical (I’m 36), my doc noted that my Red Blood Cell (RBC) was elevated above the normal range as well as my Hematocrit (ratio of RBC to total blood). These elevated numbers increase a likelihood of stroke because the blood is thicker and gooier. Got tested for the few dreaded kiss-of death issues and all came back clean. Drs. could not figure it out so they told me just to start giving blood regularly to reduce my blood #s. I steadily developed brain fog, headaches, neausea into May and my blood #s were still going up. I finally determined that my new carpet was off-gasing so much that it was acting like carbon monoxide poisoning causing my body to react by producing more red blood cells. Just Google Polycythemia. Had the new carpet removed in May and by August, my blood #s had returned to normal. I still struggle with mild symptoms that mimic allergies (head pressure, sinus, ear pressure) daily and my doc says it will take 6-8 months for my body to ‘clear out’ the gunk. Share my story please. New carpet can poison you.

    • Wow! I can relate to your story. I am going to an acupunture and massage school in Long Island and the place is run by tge most unconscious people. The carpet in 3 of the classrooms has made me so sick.
      It is insane. This is supposed to be a ” holistic” enviornment.
      Im so disgusted.

  13. Purchased Cliffony area rug 8×10 from Lowe’s over a year and half ago. After owning the rug for about six months it started off gassing.During the summer when the air conditioner is cranking I don’t notice it but during the spring and fall when the windows and doors are open I can smell the rug when I walk in the room. I am going to have to toss it even though it cost 400 dollars. So, be careful with the suggestions of getting an area rug to soften a wood floor. That is exactly what I did. I can find no recalls or info on this rug. What a waste of money . (Beautiful and softest rug ever too!) But whoa! That stench….

  14. Hi! I have been looking for somewhere to get some type of opinion on off gassing and flooring.. Hopefully someone here may have a little insight to share. My family and I are moving, the home we are moving into has laminate flooring that was installed four years ago. The previous homeowner doesn’t have any info on the floor and I’m a bit concerned about my sons who are one and three.. My question is, how long does off gassing remain a factor with a product like laminate flooring?

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  20. Thanks for the article! We will be moving into a new home this summer. I am planning to ventilate the whole house for at least a few days, possibly a week, before we move in. The carpet and paint being used are not low voc. (Of course I didn’t think about it until after our selections were made) also, I’m pregnant as well, and have a toddler, hence being extra concerned about it. How long should I ventilate the house to allow for off-gassing?

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