Anatomy of a Carpet
If you walk into a room that has just had carpet installed, chances are you notice a “new carpet smell.” That telltale smell is actually an indicator of just how many toxic fumes are being released into the air from all of the chemicals used in the manufacturing of carpet. A typical sample of carpet can contain as many as 120 chemicals. When choosing a healthier carpet for your home, you have to investigate every single component of the carpeting before making your choice to ensure that you are indeed receiving the nontoxic carpet that you are striving for.
Both the EPA and the CPSC suggest that before you have new carpet installed, you should have the retailer unroll and air out the carpet in a well-ventilated area before installation, ask for low-emitting adhesives, and leave the house during the installation, as well as for several hours afterward.
Carpeting is made using a process called tufting. Tufting is the act of looping many, many fibers through a backing material to create a carpet. Those fibers can be made of different types of materials, but in the U.S. carpet industry, more than 99 percent of those materials are synthetic. The majority of U.S. carpets are made of one of these four fibers:
Since almost all wall-to-wall carpeting manufactured in the United States is made of synthetic materials, VOCs being released from the fibers is a very real concern. Because the materials are made primarily from chemicals, small amounts of those chemicals can be released into your home's indoor air from the carpeting over the course of many months or several years.
Natural carpet fibers, such as wool, cotton, jute, and coir, will not release VOCs unless they have been treated with a synthetic chemical finish. Wool is also naturally fire-resistant, dust-mite resistant, antimicrobial, and repels stains and liquids. An excellent source for 100 percent wool carpeting made in the United States is Earth Weave Carpet Mills (www.earthweave.com).
Since wool is such a great all-around choice for a healthier carpet, why isn't it used more often? Quite honestly, it is because of the cost. Wool must come from sheep who are raised for the fiber, taking time and expense to take care for the herds, while synthetic chemicals can quickly and easily be created in a factory anywhere.
To find carpeting made of any kind of fiber that is low in VOC emissions, look for the Carpet and Rug Institute's (www.carpet-rug.org) Green Label or Green Label Plus. The program identifies carpets, cushions, and adhesives that have met stringent indoor air-quality requirements for very low VOC emissions.
Even if you purchased a carpet made from all-natural fibers, you could still be exposing yourself to high amounts of VOCs through the padding that is put underneath the carpet to make it soft. Formaldehyde is a chemical used often in carpet padding. Styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) is often used in carpet padding, too, and can off-gas many VOCs. Natural and nontoxic padding, such as felt, jute, or natural rubber, is available for carpets, but not widely used, so you would need to ask for it specifically.
Synthetic fibers need to be doused with chemical fire retardants because they are highly flammable. Carpet fibers of any kind, though, whether synthetic or natural, may be coated with a number of other chemical-based finishes for a variety of reasons. Many carpets are manufactured with a stain repellent to help prevent spills from absorbing into the carpet fibers. Carpet could also be coated with fungicides, antimicrobial agents, mothproofing, and antistatic treatments. Even if your carpet is made of all-natural materials, but doused in chemical finishes, it is not as healthy as you might think. In fact, a synthetic carpet without any finishes might be more healthy than a wool carpet coated with everything that could possibly be added to the carpet fiber. The more finishes that are on your carpet, the more VOCs that will off-gas into your home's indoor air.