Fall 2018 Update: The original version of this post, first published in 2010, has been one of the most popular pages on our site for almost a decade. We’re updating it now with some new information, but perhaps the most important update is that there isn’t much new information out there. After months of researching it’s clear to us that the carpet industry is doing a great job at keeping this information in the dark and away from concerned consumers. While we wish we could recommend surefire solutions to this pervasive issue, we can’t. This post is up to date as of September 2018, and we will update it periodically if we find new information. Until then, be a conscious consumer by using the tools below, and don’t hesitate to contact companies and demand answers about harmful toxic chemicals in their products!
My new carpet is off-gassing, and I’m dizzy and nauseous from the fumes. How long does this last? What can I do? 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 Suffering in Oakland,
Yikes! You’re right, you’re definitely experiencing the effects of off-gassing. Off-gassing, sometimes called out-gassing, is the gaseous release of chemicals from a material. Furniture, plastics, vinyl products, paint, new cars, clothing, cosmetics, plastic 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. This can cause many of the symptoms you’re experiencing including headaches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, and asthmatic reactions. Longer-term effects are also possible; some chemicals are strongly linked to leukemia and lymphomas, cognitive impairment and hearing loss, among other conditions.
While each of us reacts differently to toxic materials, it’s important to be cautious and be conscientious consumers.
To find out more about the connections between chemicals and human health, take a look at the searchable Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) Toxicant and Disease Database. CHE points out that more than 82,000 chemicals have been developed, distributed, and discarded into the environment over the past fifty years. Only about 200 are fully tested for toxic effects in humans or animals, and many are common in our air, water, food, homes, workplaces, and communities. As is the case with carpets, even some of the few that are determined toxic to human health are still in everyday products in the marketplace.
Now, onto solutions: while we have yet to find a silver bullet for avoiding toxic carpets, a good number of “better” options are available today.
Carpets can emit VOCs for five years or possibly more, as carpet has been reported to release toxics like PFAS over time with “routine wear and tear.” Synthetic carpets are made from nylon fibers with a polypropylene backing, releasing over 40 chemicals including styrene and 4-phenylcyclohexane (4-PC), both of which come from the latex backing used on 95 percent of carpets. The “new carpet” odor is the 4-PC off-gassing, which can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation and 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. We’ve contacted various entities including the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) asking about the details on chemicals in adhesives, but have not heard back. For all the detail you could ever need about toxics in carpeting, see this report by the Healthy Building Network.
You’ve probably already found the advice of the EPA, which is to ventilate the carpeted area well for at least 72 hours after installation by opening windows and using fans that move air directly to the outdoors.They also recommend to use fans during installation and for several weeks afterward. We’ve found conflicting information on the effectiveness of HEPA filter vacuums and other cleanings methods, so we don’t recommend that as a complete solution. Beyond that preliminary advice, that may not make a big impact over time, there are a couple options: a) lose the carpet, or b) spring for a more expensive, healthier option if you must have carpets/rugs.
- When there’s a choice, the best alternative is to rip out wall-to-wall carpet and remove synthetic area rugs. Make sure you hire professionals for carpet removal, as chemicals will be dislodged during this project that could trigger your symptoms. Even the best wall-to-wall carpet is a haven for dust mites, mold spores, and lingering VOCs.
- If you can’t get rid of carpet completely, opt for a natural fiber carpet or area rug such as wool, with a natural backing like jute. Other natural fiber materials include bamboo, cork, sisal, coir, seagrass, and more. Pick carpet that doesn’t need adhesive (can be tacked down or screwed/nailed down), or opt for natural fiber area rugs.
In addition, make sure that the area rugs or carpets you choose:
- Have been tested for VOC emissions under the CRI IAQ Green Label Plus testing program (note: we’ve tried to get information from CRI about this how prevalent this label is, and if it only applies to US-made carpets, but have not heard back).
- Can be easily cleaned and maintained with fragrance free carpet shampoos
- Have not been through chemical treatments such as permanent stain resistance, mothproofing, and antimicrobial agents such as fungicides and mildewcides.
- Are constructed to prevent liquids from penetrating the backing layer where moisture under the carpet can result in mold growth (avoid moisture repellant/resistant chemicals).
- Can be easily removed without the use of toxic chemicals (for dislodging adhesives, etc.)
- Have been unrolled and aired out in a clean, dry warehouse before bringing them into your building. (You can ask installers for this – it is called ‘warehousing’ a carpet).
- Are not made of recycled synthetic materials. Sounds green, but isn’t a guarantee against toxics!
- Have GoodWeave or other child-labor-free certification.
Use this Environmental Working Group guide to help you find a healthier alternative to toxic carpets and flooring. The healthier choice can be more expensive, but those with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), asthma, respiratory problems, and environmental illnesses, as well as those with young children, may find it necessary. Don’t forget to vacuum and change furnace filters often, and to quickly dry carpet if it gets wet.
The EPA recommends (and we do too!) consumers like you to ask manufacturers for certification on environmental claims. They say “certain independent organizations provide testing and auditing services related to environmental standards and other environmental claims, such as recycled content and emissions data. In the absence of independent certification, ask for formal statements signed by senior company officials.” This can really help put the pressure on producers to give us the information we need!
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 they are willing to work with the cost and procurement process. Unless there are issues with mold or other infestations, you are likely responsible. Contact your city renters’/tenants’ rights hotline for more information, as landlord responsibility can vary by city.
Now, about that mattress. While many flame retardants in mattresses were banned as of September 2017, there still may be new mattresses out there with these chemicals. 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. Furniture and mattress manufacturers began using polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, as flame retardants in the 1980s, and this group of highly toxic chemicals 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.
When looking for a mattress, we recommend purchasing a new one when possible, using this EWG guide. Options include chemical-free wool, organic cotton, and natural latex mattresses. 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. Lower price healthier mattresses made of organic cotton or wool can be less than $1000. Wool futon mattresses last a long time and can be a good investment. Buying an organic cotton or wool mattress barrier pad can also help cut the toxins for those of us needing a lower-cost option. As for used mattresses: we;re not certain that used mattresses have stopped off- gassing, and they still may expose you to various chemicals including the flame retardants mentioned above. For this reason we recommend new mattresses or mattress barrier pads.
A few final thoughts on minimizing your exposure to VOCs and other toxics: ask questions and do your research. Purchase as simple a product as possible, with fewer treatments, fewer processes, and fewer ingredients. Don’t forget that other products like cars, shower curtains, baby furniture/strollers, upholstery, and more also have common toxic chemicals to avoid, like polyvinyl chloride. To learn more, rely on reputable groups like Environmental Working Group, Healthy Building Network, Children’s Environmental Health Network, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, and our helpdesk!
Industry doesn’t make it easy to find out what their products are capable of, so we have to demand information and action!
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any further questions about this or other sustainability/environmental issues.
Photo credit: Maximus 221 via Flickr