The trouble with fuzzy floors
Be it basic Berber or retro shag, carpet feels good underfoot, absorbs sound, and can add color and style to a room. No wonder it covers nearly 70% of the floors in the United States.
But some indoor-air quality experts suggest thinking twice about blanketing your floors with wall-to-wall fibers. Some new carpets emit a host of noxious chemicals that you'll be breathing for months and even years after they're installed. Another concern is that carpet acts as a reservoir for dust and dust mites, pet dander, soot, pollen, odors, fleas, and lots of other stuff you'd rather not have take up residence in your home--especially if you've got young children who spend most of their time down at floor level.
Smooth-surface floors--think hardwood, ceramic tile, linoleum, or concrete--are easier to keep clean than carpet, so they're usually a better choice from a healthy-home perspective. And carpet has a host of other environmental problems: it's a short-lived material that ends up in landfills or incinerators. Also, the majority of the carpet sold in the United States is made from nonrenewable petrochemicals.
But you don't necessarily have to give up on carpets. Over the past decade a number of manufacturers have led the way toward cleaning up their industry's practices. Products are now available that are healthier for people and the planet.
- Air it out. Carpet emits the most chemicals when it's new. Leave windows and doors open, and run a portable fan or the fan of your heating or air conditioning system for 48 to 72 hours after installation to remove chemical vapors. If you plan to do this, consider installing carpet when the weather is mild so you don't waste as much energy.
- Keep it clean. Frequent use of a vacuum is a crucial to any carpet cleaning strategy.
When shopping look for
- Durability. Choose high quality carpets--either made from natural materials such as wool (which require much less petroleum to manufacture) or recycled synthetic materials.
- Healthy adhesives. Choose carpet, pads, and adhesives certified to have low emissions of VOCs and formaldehyde. Or skip the adhesives altogether and tack down the carpet using tack strips. Look for the Green Label Plus seal of approval from the Carpet and Rug Institute. Be aware, however, that while the Green Label Plus covers emissions of some worrisome chemicals, it doesn't cover others, such as flame retardants and perfluorocarbons.
- Carpet tiles? Consider carpets sold in small pieces called "tiles" rather than "broadloom" (or sheet) carpets. Some brands of carpet tiles don't require any adhesive and can be picked up and rearranged when you want to change a room's look. If areas become worn or stained, tiles can be selectively replaced. (You might want to buy some extras for the future in case the color or pattern you choose is no longer made.)
- Recycled fiber. If you want a synthetic carpet, choose one with recycled content in the "face" fiber, the backing, or both. The higher the post-consumer recycled content, the more waste is diverted from landfills. Recycled carpet looks and performs as well as virgin-fiber synthetic carpet, and it keeps plastic waste out of landfills and incinerators. It takes about 40 two-liter plastic bottles to make a square yard of recycled polyester carpet.
- Earth-friendly manufacturers. Favor companies who guarantee they will take back the carpet at the end of its life for recycling. Recycling 500 square feet of carpet saves 24 gallons of oil, 550,000 Btu of energy and 247 pounds of landfill waste.
- Petroleum-based carpets. Wool carpets are one option, as are floor coverings made from jute, seagrass, cotton, and other natural fibers. Some manufacturers are now making carpets with polyester-like materials derived from corn. And some are using soy instead of petrochemicals to make carpet backing. Agricultural products aren't a perfect solution, however, considering the high levels of petroleum, pesticides, and other chemicals used for conventional farming.
...to your health
Remember that old advertising slogan "better living through chemistry"? Well, it didn't quite work out that way with most carpets. Their fibers and the pads below them often emit potentially hazardous levels of VOCs and other chemicals. The worst fumes come from the carpet backing but even the face of the carpet is typically treated with stain-resistant, soil-resistant and antimicrobial chemicals. Some health and environmental experts oppose the use of antimicrobials in particular, concerned that they may lead to the growth of strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Carpet fibers can also absorb the odors from new paint and furniture, holding onto these noxious chemicals and then releasing them into the air when someone walks on the carpet. For people who are sensitive to these chemicals, the fluff under their feet starts looking more ominous than elegant.
...to the Earth and your wallet
Carpet is also the most short-lived of the flooring alternatives, often lasting only 10 to 15 years. That makes it a problem in landfills, and a drain on your pocketbook. For example: The upfront costs of carpet and hardwood floors can be about the same. But, the hardwood floor may last two or three times as long.
- Capturing fumes. Carpet can absorb VOCs and formaldehyde from paint, adhesives, household cleaning products, and even personal care products. Choose low- or zero-VOC products.
Blanketing your heater. If you put carpet over radiant floor heating, you'll reduce the heating system's effectiveness.
- See if your area has one of the handful of organizations that accepts used carpets for recycling. They charge a fee for your old carpet, but it may be cheaper than sending it to the dump.
- If you're still mystified about how to find a greener carpet, consider buying from a store that specializes in environmentally friendly home products. They'll be knowledgeable about the best choices.
- Ask any potential installer the following questions:
- How much expertise does the contractor have installing carpet?
- Ask to for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you've chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.
- If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.
- For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.