Ask The Eco Team

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 (http://database.healthandenvironment.org/) 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 (www.checnet.org) 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.


4 thoughts on “Ask The Eco Team

  1. I have a natural latex mattress and I love it. It is pricey but well worth it if you can afford it. The latex mattress I have is supposed to last 15 to 20 years, which is a better life than most standard mattresses. Standard mattresses seem to break down quickly and not provide the right support for your body. Latex is extremely heavy(my queen size weighs about 130 lbs.), but mine comes with three layers of varying densities, to adjust for personal preference. Not to mention I can desemble it, to make moving it easier. I would suggest looking into the adhesive used to join the pieces if that is an issue.
    I am confused about the backing on carpets, you say it is latex, but is it synthetic?