Carpet Politics and Alternatives – chemicals given off by carpeting found to cause health problems

Rose Marie Williams

In the June 2001 issue of TLfDP, #215, this column discussed the Hidden Dangers of Carpeting. Some of the topics covered were indoor air quality — asthma — formaldehyde — children — pesticides — and cleaning hazards. Potential sources of toxic chemicals emanate from the synthetic fibers, carpet backing and padding, dyes, fireproofing, mothproofing, stain proofing, and floor adhesives. [1] Researching information about carpet safety produced some interesting twists and turns through the land of government inefficiency and corporate spin doctoring.

Animal Testing

In the early 1990s the Anderson Lab in Massachusetts, run by Rosalind Anderson, PhD, toxicologist, did extensive testing of carpet samples yielding very disturbing results. Individuals who suspected their illness was caused by their carpeting sent carpet samples to Dr. Anderson. The study design consisted of placing a carpet sample in a glass aquarium with a small heating pad under it to raise the temperature to about 37[degrees]C. (body temperature) equivalent to what occurs with sun exposure, heating ducts, or radiantly heated floors. Air was then blown through the glass chamber into a second chamber containing white mice, for one hour twice a day for two days totaling four hours in a 48-hour period. The startling result is that many of the mice died. Dr. Yves Alarie, PhD developed the test protocol, known as ASTM E981, at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s for testing nerve gases. [2]

“One carpet sample caused severe convulsions after the second hour of exposure, and overall, 17 of the 50 mice exposed to the carpet samples died.” Other mice suffered sensory irritation, pulmonary irritation, and obvious neuromuscular effects. [3]

Another test at the Anderson Lab showed that mice exposed to a carpet sample developed hypersensitivity pneumonitis — the same pathological changes to lung tissue biopsied from a patient exposed to the identical carpet. Autopsies on mice exposed to carpet fumes using the ASTM E981 method revealed lesions of the brain and liver, as well as kidney degeneration. [4]

Children and babies spend a great deal more time in close contact with carpeted interiors than do lab mice. This maybe another environmental assault on the health of children growing up in industrialized nations where petrochemicals dominate.

Anderson’s test findings and outcomes have been duplicated by researchers with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as by Dr. Alarie, who was hired by the Carpet and Rug Institute. Dr. Alarie performed the tests in his own lab four times and his findings concurred with the others. [5]

When EPA scientists repeated the tests at their labs in Research Triangle Park, NC, they increased the level of humidity. The effects on the mice were less dramatic, hinting that the “problem chemicals might be water-soluble.” Instead of pursuing the original test design and trying to figure out what was causing the mice to die, the EPA claimed “they couldn’t duplicate Anderson’s results,” even though she had them on video tape doing exactly that in her own lab. EPA didn’t raise the level of humidity just a little, it was like a “rain forest.” [6]

Winter heating and summer air-conditioning reduce the levels of humidity in many carpeted interiors. However, this did not stop the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) from initiating a campaign of denial of health effects. Intent on protecting the economic interests of the carpet manufacturing industry, CRI claimed Anderson’s tests were “equivalent to lacing up a human being in a strait jacket and repeatedly choking him for two days.” [7] CRI conveniently ignored the fact that most carpeted interiors are not likely to sustain humidity levels equivalent to a rain forest.

Polities: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Standing up on behalf of public health, Robert Abrams, then NYS Attorney General, petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) on April 11, 1991, to require health warnings on carpeting. More than 120 chemicals associated with carpets were found to be toxic or carcinogenic. By Fall 1991, CPSC had received in excess of 6,000 complaints about carpeting, and done nothing in response, leading one to question just who the Consumer Protection Safety Commission was protecting? Attorney General Abrams’ original petition was denied. During the appeal process 25 additional States Attorneys General lent their support by adding their names to Abrams’ petition. [8]

EPA had been studying the issue for some time. After a 16-month debate with policy makers, industry reps, and scientists, much was said and little was done. Oddly enough, Dr. Anderson and Dr. Alarie were not included in these debates. EPA then published the Indoor Air Quality & New Carpet brochure to which health proponents objected because it denies any connection between adverse health effects and outgassing of chemicals from new carpeting. Recent conversations with EPA officials and the Anderson Lab confirm that no followup studies have been done since the early 1990’s. Another example of how the political/scientific partnership carefully avoids studying problems which might yield results unfriendly to industry.

EPA Staff Suffer Too

One would imagine that with all this knowledge and information at their fingertips, EPA employees would enjoy the benefit of a healthy working environment. Quite the opposite happened in 1987 when new carpeting was installed in EPA headquarters at the Waterside Mall Complex in Washington, DC.

Employees began to complain of symptoms almost immediately, but were ignored until their union took action. Three and a half years later, the offensive carpeting was finally removed. One thousand employees, nearly half of the staff, suffered from Sick Building Syndrome, with many remaining totally disabled. [9]

The predominant source of the offensive odor was a chemical that outgasses from the styrene-butadiene rubber latex backing. The chemical, 4-PCH (4-phenylcyclohexene), is a mucous membrane and eye irritant, can cause skin rashes and respiratory symptoms, and is responsible for the familiar “new carpet” odor. [10] It now appears that 4-PCH may not be a single guilty agent, but rather an accomplice to other chemicals whose danger is increased by the synergistic mix. [11]

Carpet Installers’ Symptoms

By nature of their work, carpet installers are consistently exposed to the outgassing of synthetic chemical compounds of new carpets with rubber backing and padding. On top of this are the pesticides, fungicides, soil repellents, and dyes, plus exposure to fumes in the adhesives and seaming process, and solvents used for removing old carpet. [12] Is it any wonder that many suffer job related health effects?

Symptoms include hoarseness, shortness of breath, arthritis and lung cancer. Some carpet installers have become disabled with a variety of neurological disorders including respiratory symptoms, numbness, tingling, dizziness, ringing in the ears, joint pain, forgetfulness, fatigue, mood swings and tremors. [13]

Several studies of carpet and textile workers found an association of health risks, including leukemia, testicular cancer, oral and pharyngeal cancer. [14] Carpet installers exposed to solvents were found to have increased risk of neuropsychiatric disorders associated with solvent exposure. The greater the exposure (years on the job) the greater the risk. [15] Toxic adhesives in carpet glue can cause severe brain damage in previously healthy individuals. [16]

Green Label Means Nothing

Following the great carpet debate of the early 1990s, the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) voluntarily began to include new carpet labels informing consumers that “some people experience allergic or flu-like symptoms, headaches, or respiratory problems which they associate with…carpet.” Health advocates wanted labels warning consumers and installers of more serious health effects associated with exposure to chemicals in carpeting, padding, and installation adhesives. [17]

Protecting the interests of carpet manufacturers, CRI developed their own test design and standards for a “green label” tag as a courtesy to consumers. Critics contend the “green label” had less to do with protecting consumer health, and more to do with protecting industry profits.

New York State Attorney General, Robert Abrams, criticized the carpet industry for mounting “a massively deceptive merchandising campaign that intentionally misleads the public by implying that all carpets with the green tag have met safety standards.” [18] There are no recognized standards of safety, and CRI’s testing program measures only a small percentage of chemicals emitted from carpets. A manufacturer can get a “green tag” for an entire product line just by having one small piece of carpet tested once a year. [19]

One family in Maryland was disabled after installing “green label” carpeting in their store. A carpet sample tested at the Anderson Lab and the University of Pittsburgh was found to cause gross nervous system abnormalities in mice. [20]

Buyer Beware

Because the “green label” certification program is so loosely rendered, many individuals may still suffer adverse affects from exposure to new carpeting materials. Secondly, the industries that manufacture carpet cushions and adhesives do not participate in any certification program regarding VOC emissions of their products. [21]

The American Lung Association offers the following suggestions when buying new carpeting:

* request help in selecting lower emitting carpet, cushions and adhesives

* ask retailer to unroll and air out carpet in a clean, well-ventilated area for a minimum of two to three days before installation

* during and after installation, premises should be ventilated with windows opened, and fans to exhaust fumes to the outdoors

* for closed environments, ventilate during installation, and for 48 to 72 hours following installation

* if an objectionable odor persists, contact the retailer

* carpet owners should follow manufacturer’s instructions for proper maintenance

* ask to have carpets tacked down instead of using adhesives Minimize exposure to mold and mildew when installing new carpet by making sure the floor is absolutely dry. To reduce dust exposure, thoroughly vacuum old carpet prior to removal. It is further recommended to avoid the area for two or three days following new carpet installation. [22]

Consumers may wish to ask for least toxic adhesives. “Low odor,” “low chemical release,” and “low VOC” designate water-based adhesives containing fewer solvents than standard products. An adhesive with less than 5% solvent is recommended. Installers may resist because more time is needed for the product to become sticky enough for carpet installation. [23]

Safety Tips

Using a floor mat outside each entry can reduce the amount of dirt and contaminants tracked indoors. Removing shoes is even better, and while a bit of an inconvenience doing so where children crawl or play is well worth the extra effort.

Shampooing new carpet right after installation in a home, office, or school can reduce outgassing of toxic VOCs. Seek out safer rug shampoos. Carefully read product labels for warnings of hazardous ingredients.

Some products can be used to seal outgassing from existing carpets, and should be applied following the initial shampoo process. SAFE CHOICE and AFM carpet sealers reduce outgassing of carpet chemicals.

Individuals who suspect they have developed symptoms from exposure to carpeting chemicals should register a complaint with the Consumer Protection Safety Commission 1-800-638-2772, and with their State Attorney General.

Carpet Alternatives

It is possible to have attractive, comfortable, easy to clean, longer lasting floors without installing synthetic carpeting. Nothing surpasses the beauty and longevity of ceramic tile or wood floors. Natural linoleum (derived from flax) is making a comeback. It is chlorine-free, bacteria-resistant, and durable. Area rugs that can be removed for thorough cleaning provide warmth and a decorating accent.

As for carpeting alternatives, there are many companies offering natural wool, some treated with mothproofing, and others completely pesticide-free. It is possible to obtain carpets colored only with vegetable dyes and with all natural backing. There are natural latex adhesives made from rubber. Colin Campbell & Sons in Vancouver, Canada is one supplier whose wool carpets have tested well at the Anderson Labs.

Other floor coverings are made of biodegradable natural fibers such as cotton, sisal, cork, bamboo, and even paper twisted into fibers to look like yarn, sold by Merida-Meridian to architects and designers. Hendricksen Naturlich was started by a couple familiar with natural floor covering used in Europe, after the wife developed a chemical sensitivity from exposure to synthetic carpets. Located in Sebastopol, California, they offer a selection of least-toxic and non-toxic products. Earth Weave Carpet Mills in Georgia offer 100% natural, non-toxic, durable wool yarns made in the USA.

By no means complete, the following list of suppliers is provided to help consumers and health care providers find safer floor coverings for their homes and offices.


Forbo Industries (natural linoleum) 1-800-233-0475

Domco (natural linoleum)

Armstrong (natural linoleum) www.armstorng,com

Earth Weave Carpet Mills (natural carpets) 706-278-8200

Garuda Woven Art (natural dyed Tibetan carpets) 303-442-2096

Healthy Home Center (cork, bamboo, linoleum, natural fibers), 1-800-583-9523

Naturlich (wool carpet, cork flooring, linoleum), 707-824-0914 fax 800-329-9398

Calm Campbell & Sons (100% chemical free & biodegradable), 1-800-667-5001

Environmental Construction Outfitters (sustainable, nontoxic, natural fibers),, 1-800-238-5008

Merida – Meridian (sisal, linen, paper, seagrass natural fibers), 1-800-345-2200

N.E.E.D.S. (shampoos, sealants for carpets / hardwood floors, many products for the chemically sensitive including Mold Plates, and Formaldehyde Spot Test Kits), 1-800-634-1380

Back To Basics (carpet shampoos, sealers and more), 845-657-2656

Anderson Laboratories, Box 323 West Hartford, VT, 05084,, 802-295-7344


(1.) Carpeting & Children’s Health, Washington Toxics Coalition, fact sheet, Oct 2000.

(2.) Bower, John, The Healthy House, The Healthy House Inst., Bloomington, IN, 1997.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Duehring, Cindy, “Carpet Concerns, Part 2, Informed Consent, Jan/Feb 1994.

(5.) Bower, John, The Healthy House, The Healthy House Inst., Bloomington, IN, 1997.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Carpeting & Children’s Health, Washington Toxics Coalition, fact sheet, Oct. 2000; Hodgson, Al, “Volatile Organic Chemical Emissions From Carpets,” Final Report Directorate for Health Sciences, US CPSC, Bethesda, MD, 1992.

(11.) Bower, John, The Healthy House, The Healthy House Inst., Bloomington, IN, 1997.

(12.) Duebring, Cindy, “Carpet Concerns, Part 2,” Informed Consent, Jan/Feb 1994.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Duehring, Cindy, “Carpet Concerns, Part 3,” Informed Consent, Mar/Apr 1994.

(15.) Duehring, Cindy, “Carpet Concerns, Part 2,” Informed Consent, Jan/Feb 1994.

(16.) Sampson, Nancy, Bau Biologie, Sojourn Mgz., Winter, 1998,

(17.) Bower, John, The Healthy House, The Healthy House Inst., Bloomington, IN, 1997.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Duebring, Cindy, “Carpet Concerns, Part 1,” Informed Consent, Nov/Dec 1993.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Steinman, D., Epstein, S., The Safe Shoppers Bible, MacMillan, NY, 1995.

(22.) Abrams, R, NYSAtty. Gen., “Chemicals in New Carpets Pose Potential Health Hazards,” Consumer Alert, 1991.

(23.) Ibid.

COPYRIGHT 2001 The Townsend Letter Group

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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