The dangers of indoor chemical pollution



Carpeting covers the floors in most American homes, businesses and schools.  Infants crawl and children play for hours on "fresh" carpeting, all the while inhaling its fumes, and businesses subject workers to newly-installed carpeting, poisoning them with a stew of chemicals, allergens and toxic dust.

Whether your home or business' carpeting is new or old, they probably have more bad things in them than you want to imagine.  Foremost on this staggering list, new carpeting releases volatile organic compounds (VOC's).

According to the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), volatile organic compounds are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids.  VOC's include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short and long-term adverse health effects.  Concentrations of VOC's are consistently higher indoors than outdoors.  VOC's are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. [1]

New carpeting VOC's may include toluene, benzene, formaldehyde, ethyl benzene, styrene, acetone and a host of other chemicals, some of which the EPA has determined to be extremely hazardous substances.  Known carcinogens such as p-Dichlorobenzene are in many new carpets, as are chemicals that produce fetal abnormalities in test animals.  These chemicals may also cause hallucinations, nerve damage and respiratory illness in humans.  If you've ever felt queasy or lightheaded in a room recently floored with new carpeting, this is most likely why.

Other compounds in new carpeting that affect our health are adhesives, stain protectors, moth proofing and flame retardants.  Moth proofing chemicals contain naphthalene (See Silent Menace, 'Moth Balls'), which is known to produce toxic reactions, especially in newborns.  Fire retardants often contain polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE).  Recent reports have indicated that exposure to even low concentrations of these chemicals may result in irreparable damage to the nervous and reproductive systems.  [2]

The most dangerous exposure to new carpeting is in places of business, which in all likelihood, are closed environments.  In other words, not only each of the offices, but the entire building is a sealed, controlled environment, where the air is constantly re-circulated.  In such places, the only fresh air that enters is through the front door, and since most entrances have double doors (to retain the cooled or heated indoor environment), that means very little of the polluted indoor air is permitted to escape.  Add the many photocopiers, chemical cleaners and air "fresheners" that are most likely in place, and what you have in practically any indoor American office is a virtual toxic wasteland.

Older carpets can be more of a hazard than new ones: Not only may they contain the chemicals banned from more recent production, they also have had years to accumulate pounds of dust mites, dirt, pesticides and other toxins brought in on shoes, feet and pet's paws.   At home, the chemicals from sprays and insect foggers settle in the rug and remain there for years.  If your place of business is serviced by an exterminator or has had its walls recently painted, the VOC's can  remain in the carpet indefinitely and seep out long after the exterminator leaves and the walls no longer smell of paint.

What can you do?  You can take action to reduce your exposure to carpet toxins.  First, if you're a homeowner, get rid of the carpeting.  If not that, then vacuum with a well-sealed high quality vacuum cleaner that can do a much better job of cleaning your carpets than a regular brush "vacuum" cleaner, especially since low quality vacuum cleaners are not sealed well.  Steam cleaning can kill dust mites and bacteria.  If you must buy a rug or carpeting, choose one made of naturally flame retardant fibers such as wool, and get a woven rug.  Instead of gluing your carpeting to the floor, attach it with staples.  Finally, purchase quality air cleaners or air purifiers that will remove dust and toxins that rise from the carpet or rug.  If you follow many of these precautions, you will certainly have a cleaner and healthier home.

Of course, if your workplace has had new carpeting installed, you're pretty much at their mercy.  Just like companies that choose to ignore complaints from workers regarding dangers from exposure to photocopier fumes, management most likely isn't going to rip up thousands of dollars of new carpeting simply because of you, or because they happened to read a copy of this article that you've shared with them.  For as with photocopiers and chemical air "fresheners," the chemicals used in the manufacturing of carpeting are relatively new, and not enough time has passed to determine long-term effects from such exposure.  Remember, it took decades for legal products such as DDT, leaded paint and asbestos to be recognized for their dangers.  Unfortunately, a lot of people had to get very sick and even die along the way from exposure to these products before they were banned.

If new carpeting in your place of business is making you sick, however, you may be able to get a doctor's excuse to remain away from work until the carpeting is aired out.

In the United States, persons diagnosed with multi-chemical sensitivities, (MSC's) may, by a doctor's evaluation, determined to be disabled, and thus, covered by The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  [3]  If something in your place of business (with at least 15 employees) is creating an atmosphere that inhibits your right to conduct your work (such as breathing), and can be "eliminated by reasonable accomondation" (such as forbidding co-workers to wear perfume and carpeting that time will air out), you in all likelihood -- once diagnosed as MSC -- should be able to get a doctor's order forbidding you to be exposed to such dangers.

Before you charge into your boss' office and declare war, however, check with your attorney on your rights: management can be justified to fire anyone who creates a chaotic scene and disrupts the company's conduct of business.  Always remain calm, cool and collected, and armed with an attorney's advice, there's no reason why you should have to be subjected to a barrage of invisible, yet deadly chemicals, released slowly into your office environment:.




2. ‘The Health Effects of PBDE Absorption" by Anne Marie Helmestine, Ph.D.


3. The American with Disabilities Act of 1990; Title 42, Chapter 126, "Equal Opportunity for Individuals with Disabilities"

Article written in part from 'Solutions for the Toxic Fumes in New Carpet,' Nirvana Safe Haven
  Used with permission.

Additional articles pertaining to indoor carpeting:

‘Carpet Concerns Part Four: Physicians Speak Up as Medical Evidence Mounts, by Cindy Duehring, director of research, Environmental Access Research Network


‘Remodeling Harzards’ by Lorene Bartos, UNL Extension Educator

‘Solutions for Toxic Fumes in New Carpet’



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