Is new carpet safe?
Ignorance is no longer bliss when it comes to our health—the information’s out there. We’re constantly bombarded with new studies that tell us things we’ve been doing for years may be deadly. It wasn’t too many years ago that we didn’t know smoking was bad, and it was recent that it was allowed in public facilities. I remember my doctor’s office used to reek of smoke! We’ve come a long way, but recently there’s been more in more evidence that there may be silent killers located in the place we are most comfortable: our homes.
There are many factors that go into home construction and your health, and carpeting is no exception. Fortunately, the carpet industry has started to address this issue, but any changes they make won’t be perfect, so it’s important for you to know what to do to protect yourself.
What’s all the fuss about?
Indoor air quality has been getting a lot of attention lately and rightfully so. We’re finding out that it’s not just big smoke stacks that spew out pollutants; it’s almost any man-made material. This means anything from the paint on your walls to the frying pan in your cabinet and almost everything in-between. The name for these pollutants is volatile organic compounds or VOCs.
Whether you love or hate the new carpet smell, it’s in your best interest to avoid it. This smell is thought to be result of VOCs flowing throughout your home. Most of the VOCs in carpet come from the latex backing, but it can also come from the carpet fiber, glue or other adhesive materials used in installation. There are many chemicals involved but one of the most notorious carpet pollutants is called 4-phenylcyclohexenem, aka 4-PC.
Who is affected, what are the symptoms, and how much is too much?
You can think of VOCs as any other pollutant. Long-term exposure is linked to cancer, kidney and liver damage, as well as central nervous system damage. Short-term exposure can lead to illness and affected individuals may have anything to irritated eyes to headaches to nausea and dizziness.
There are not enough studies to determine what levels of VOCs are safe and which can cause adverse effects, and it’s likely that it varies person to person. Similar to pesticides and hormones in your food, avoiding them completely is impossible, but making an effort to keep them as low as possible is in our best interest.
Elderly people and those with asthma may be especially sensitive to and will want to take extra effort to avoid these pollutants. Also, please pay special attention to lowering VOCs if you have a baby—their small size and the fact that they are still developing makes them especially vulnerable.
How to limit VOCs
Now that you understand indoor air pollution, I’m going to teach you how to reduce it when you have your new carpet installed. You can use any of these recommendations alone, but combining these tips will be extremely effective at lowering your homes VOC levels.
Look for the green label
The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) started a program where they give a “green label” to carpet emitting low amounts of VOCs. So what carpets qualify? The CRI took the standards from the California Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations for VOCs and added even stricter standards to their guidelines.
To get the lowest VOC emitting carpets, ask your retailer to show you the CRI Green Label carpets, or look for the label yourself—it is shaped like a greenhouse and has the CRI logo on it. There is also a “green label plus” certification that you may come across; this is the green label with even stricter standards. You can find this label on carpet, padding, and even some vacuum cleaners.
Ask your installer to air it out
It’s not unreasonable to ask your installer to air out your carpet before bringing it in your home. Carpeting is stored in large roles, and this doesn’t allow the carpet to “breathe.” Ask your installer if they’ll unroll it and let it sit out for a week before bringing it to your home. Since the first few days are the worst for VOCs, this should help reduce the level of indoor pollution your carpet releases tremendously. This (and many of the following steps) is especially important if you don’t have a green label carpet.
What about the glue?
Sometimes it’s not the carpet emitting contaminates, but it’s the glue used to install the carpet. Typically carpet with padding is installed with tack strips—this doesn’t require glue. Carpet installed directly to the floor or using carpet tiles may require glue. You can purchase glues that have lower amounts of VOCs, and this is something you should definitely consider in these cases.
Make sure it’s nice weather
A sunny 70 degree day with a nice breeze is perfect, but any weather that allows you to keep your doors open will do. For most parts of the country, this means scheduling your carpet installation in the spring or fall. This will allow the VOCs to escape your home. Think of a car running in a closed garage versus an open garage—the fumes aren’t going to affect you nearly as quickly with the open garage (although we hope VOCs are not close to as potent as your exhaust, but the point remains).
Blow out the pollutants
To add to the previous point, there are other steps you can take to remove the contaminants from your home. Turn on ceiling fans, active your central air conditioners fan (most have a fan-only mode), and any other big fans you may have to get the air moving. This works best with the doors and windows open, but even if you can’t open up your home, the circulating air will help diminish the VOCs.
Take a short vacation
The VOCs are by far the worst the first 2-3 days and after that they gradually decline. Take this opportunity to get out of your house. Take a short vacation, even if it’s a weekend vacation at a hotel nearby. Maybe make plans with friends to head out to a casino or a nearby city for a ball game and a night out. Plan ahead and you can combine this with a vacation you already planned, so the time away from home doesn’t add to your expenses.
Use the right vacuum and get it cleaned
Once you’ve taken all of these steps, VOCs aren’t a big issue, but you still have a few things to worry about when it comes to carpet and your health. Allergens can get trapped in your carpet. Some say this is a good thing because it’s better in your carpet than in the air where you can breathe them in. Regardless, you’ll want a good vacuum. There are “green label” vacuums (just like the carpet), but you can also look for a vacuum that has a HEPA filter—make sure that it has the filter for the air the vacuum blows out, and not just the air it sucks in. It’s also a good idea to have your carpet professionally cleaned yearly to reduce bacteria build up.
Captain’s parting words!
If you love the new carpet smell, this article is pretty disappointing On the bright side, each of these suggestions is powerful in reducing the amount of air pollution in your home. Combine the tips, and you’ll be breathing easy. Just remember, everything from paint to new furniture to air fresheners can produce indoor pollutants, so if VOCs concern you, you’ll have work to do beyond your carpet. Good luck, and here’s to our health!