No windows... or ducts... or plumbing...
...Just carpets!

Can carpets in your home actually improve indoor air quality?

Common sense dictates that a person who is sensitive to allergens and chemicals should remove the carpets from their home in favor of hard floors which are easy to clean. Right? In the recent "green" movement, carpets have been vilified for being moldy, unhealthy, filth-laden, emitters of toxic fumes. There are unscientific, unproven theories about carpet emissions posted all over the internet. In 1992, to combat these false claims, the carpet manufacturing industry voluntarily engaged in a dialogue with the EPA, and the Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI) initiated a testing program for minimum allowable emissions of carpet. There are however, legitimate concerns about carpet which I will investigate in this article.

  1. First, we'll consider airborne dust and allergens. Scientific studies have shown that residential carpets, with their extremely high surface areas act as efficient air filters, trapping and holding particulate airborne contaminates such as dust, smoke, dander, and dust mites. Many of these particulates are allergens which cause respiratory problems to some people when inhaled. Hard floors don't trap these particulates, so they are more easily disturbed by foot traffic or cleaning. These particulates then become airborne and enter the breathing zone. More about dust mites: Most people with dust mite allergies are only allergic to the airborne dust mite feces, and not the mites themselves. Vacuuming will remove the dust mites from carpets and furniture. Carpets may actually be beneficial to people with asthma or other respiratory illness. One can minimize particulates by frequent vacuuming with a CRI certified vacuum cleaner, and by having your carpet professionally cleaned once a year.

  2. Mold is a serious concern in any indoor environment. However, mold simply will not grow on clean, dry, synthetic carpet. Mold will grow on almost any dirty surface in a warm environment at over 60% humidity. Materials that remain damp for a period of time will develop mold. This includes vinyl, tile, wood, carpet, bamboo, cork, drywall, or any other building material one can think of. Click here for scientific studies regarding mold and carpets. Click here for mold facts on the CDC's website.

  3. Carpet Emissions. Emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) happens with most new interior products. Building materials, furniture, fabrics, carpets, etc... All emit VOCs. Carpet fibers are made of nylon, wool, polyester, etc... These are all of the same materials that are in the clothes we wear. Most carpet backing is made from polypropylene and synthetic latex. We eat food from polypropylene containers every day, and synthetic latex, since it doesn't contain the proteins that natural latex contains, is not an allergen. New carpets will emit low levels of VOCs for a few days after it's installed. Adequate ventilation will alleviate any unpleasant odors during this time. Following an in-depth study, Dr. Alan Hedge, professor of Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, reported that "New carpet emissions should not create health problems for people – any people”. In 1992, the carpet industry voluntarily reduced the maximum allowable emissions from carpets to the following measured in mg/m2•hr
    • Total Volatile Organic Compounds
    • 4-PC (4-Phenylcyclohexene)
    • Formaldehyde
    • Styrene
  4. Carpet cushions are a source for potentially high emissions, as well as adhesives used to secure the cushion to the subfloor. These products vary greatly in emissions; however the Carpet & Rug Institute has implemented testing programs for these products. If you use only CRI certified carpet, cushion, and adhesives, you can ensure that there will be no harmful VOCs emitted from your carpets. Cleaning products, waxes, sealers, and other products for maintaining hard floors often contain volatile solvents which release high levels of VOCs. Carpets are vacuumed without chemicals, and steam cleaned once a year with water based detergents which are much less invasive.
  5. When carpet has reached the end of its life it can be recycled into new carpet, roofing materials, automotive parts, septic tanks, insulation, fencing, pallets, sound barriers, railroad ties, energy, & more.

Carpet is a comfortable, healthy, and cost effective way to cover the floors in your home. Carpet is a warm, pleasant, safe non slip surface for small children or adults to walk on. Carpet absorbs sound. Carpet is stylish, and is available in a large variety of textures. Colors are virtually unlimited from neutral tones to bold patterns which can brighten up any room. Hopefully the research I have shown in this article will alleviate some fears, clear up some misconceptions, and give someone some peace of mind.

© James Hingst, 2009