We take a look at whether the humble carpet could really be one of the most damaging things in your home.
In a list of things that could cause us danger in our homes, you’d expect carpets to be right at the bottom. However, it turns out that this type of flooring is potentially more damaging than you’d think. Here’s a look at why some Americans have started ripping their carpets up.
The humble carpet’s origins date back millennia, but it took until the 19th century to make its way into American homes. It then experienced a significant growth in popularity following World War Two thanks to a combination of much cheaper manufacturing overheads and larger domestic properties.
And with its numerous factories making the floor covering, North Georgia became the unofficial carpet capital of the world. In fact, just one Georgia town – Dalton – is responsible for close to three quarters of the carpeting that the U.S. manufactures annually. In total, in excess of a billion square feet is produced nationwide each year.
North Georgia may be seen as the center of the carpet-manufacturing industry, then. But according to The Guardian columnist Simon Busch, Iran remains the most popular place to actually buy them. The country formerly known as Persia also reportedly boasts more exquisite carpet designs than anywhere else in the world.
Carpets continued to be a staple of Americans’ homes throughout the second half of the 20th century. They also continued to evolve, with yellow shag being a particular favorite in the 1970s, while taupe and beige attracted more homeowners in the 1990s. Of course, their ubiquity eventually led to them being considered old-fashioned.
In fact, a 2019 Catalina Research study concluded that the wall-to-wall carpet’s floor covering market share has fallen from 60 percent to approximately 33 percent since during the present century. In the 2010s alone, the industry has suffered a downturn of roughly $5 billion. Homeowners have instead turned to other options such as vinyl and faux wood.
Interior decorator Tyler Wisner, who’s shown up on Design Star on HGTV, told Time magazine in June 2019 that he understands why the carpet has fallen out of fashion. He said, “The negative image of carpet is because once upon a time carpet was used everywhere.” Wisner admits that he seldom recommends the flooring type to clients as he’s usually met with a negative response.
Of course, the carpet is still very much a staple of the bedroom. And those who’ve stuck with it should still enjoy several benefits. Indeed, the Carpet Institute of Australia claims that the covering can help to improve air quality, while it may also prevent slipping and even reduce stress.
Yes, in a 2016 study published in the Iranian Journal of Public Health, more than 40 individuals were asked to walk for ten minutes on both carpeting and wooden flooring. The latter was deemed to be a far more stressful experience than the former. And with its sound-absorbing properties, carpets are also said to help with noise control.
Of course, perhaps the main reason people still buy carpets is that it’s simply the most weather-friendly type of floor covering. The combination of carpeting and underlay is able to soak up heat and therefore makes homeowners cooler in sunny weather and warmer during the fall and winter. As a result, it also helps to lower both air-con and heating costs.
And then there’s carpet’s money-saving aspect, too. In 2003 the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification carried out a study comparing the price of having a carpet and a hard floor. And they found that the former was far cheaper to buy and keep in good condition.
But alongside these many benefits, the carpet reportedly also has many drawbacks. For instance, the floor covering is said to trap bugs and pollutants such as pet detritus that can enter the home’s airflow if disturbed. Young children, who spend much of their time on the floor, are believed to be at particular risk from these issues.
The American Lung Association advises that carpets should be vacuumed every two to three days. It claims that they should be steam-cleaned at least once a year, too. And areas that are likelier to be exposed to more moisture, and therefore more mold, such as bathrooms and kitchens shouldn’t contain any kind of carpet at all.
And if you’re currently looking for a new carpet, then the ALA also has some invaluable advice. It states that the floor covering should be placed in an area with good ventilation for at least three days before it’s installed. In addition, homeowners should refrain from entering the room for the same amount of time once the carpet has been laid.
In contrast, though, some studies have shown that far from exacerbating conditions such as allergies and asthma, carpets can actually be beneficial. A report from the European Community Respiratory Health Service Study discovered that those who are affected by dust mites feel more comfortable in rooms with carpets. And research by the German Allergy and Asthma Society concluded that there was a lower chance of finding fine dust in carpets than in smooth floors.
But how exactly are carpets manufactured? Well, firstly a collection of threads are moistened and warmed before being coiled. They’re then formed into closed loops by devices that are more than 10 feet long and often boast in excess of 1,000 needles. The carpet is subsequently cleaned and finally allowed to dry.
Close to two-thirds of carpets are reportedly made from nylon, with other popular synthetic materials including polypropylene and polyester. However, some prefer to use natural substances, with wool by far the most common. Silk can also be used in the manufacturing process.
In fact, it’s these natural fibers that are helping to spearhead a carpet renaissance. ABC Carpet and Home’s vice president Bill Ward reports that customers are regularly forking out five-figure sums for carpets manufactured out of silk and wool. He told Time magazine that he can even envisage wall-to-wall carpeting making a proper comeback.
And some companies are going even further in their bids to make carpets as harmless to the environment as possible. Econyl, for example, produces carpets from unwanted plastic bottles and fishing nets. Meanwhile, Tretford takes things all the way back to the carpet’s origins by creating them entirely out of goat hair.
But what happens when you want to get rid of your carpet? Well, while it can’t be recycled as a whole, some of the various parts can be. Unfortunately, though, carpet-recycling services may be difficult to come by. Nonetheless, the Carpet America Recovery Effort is doing its best to ensure that at least two-fifths of used carpeting avoids going into landfill.
So, how was the humble carpet invented in the first place? Well, its origins date way back to 6000 B.C. when sheep and goats’ wool was formed into mats. By the 8th century B.C. the homes of the rich were often adorned with rugs. The one sometimes regarded as the world’s most impressive, the Ardebil carpet, was created for Shah Tahmasp, a Persian ruler, towards the end of the 1500s.
The trend for carpets eventually swept across other parts of the Middle East and Asia during this period, too. However, each region would make its own floor coverings for varying reasons. In India, for instance, only the wealthiest and most powerful people in society were able to decorate their homes with rugs. However, in the Middle East the carpet became the center of a thriving domestic cottage industry.
France and England soon embraced the carpet, too. In the early 1600s a carpet manufacturing center was built at Henry IV’s palace, in which the East Asian techniques were combined with French designs to produce the king’s own personal collection. Louis XIII, his successor, established another production site that helped to meet the demand from the general public. And in 1655 the first English facility was constructed.
The world’s earliest surviving carpet is a 20 square feet item known as the Pazyryk. It was found in Russia by Sergei Rudenko during the late 1940s. The archaeologist was investigating a grave in Siberia when he came across the object, which originated in modern-day Turkey. Researchers believe that the item dates as far back as 500 B.C.
But could this historic love of carpets soon come to an end? Well, according to engineer John Roberts, it perhaps should. The man dubbed Dr. Dust, due to his research on household hygiene, carried out a study on the floor covering in 2001 that produced some highly alarming claims.
In fact, Roberts argued that the average carpet would require specialist treatment if it was discovered in the open air. He also alleged that the floor covering may be instrumental in the rise of allergies, asthma and even cancer in kids. And this is all to do with the high level of toxins that can be found in the material.
Large amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known to be carcinogenic, were found in the analysis that Roberts conducted on some domestic carpets. A worrying quantity of heavy metals and pesticides were also discovered. Perhaps most startling of all, though, was that Roberts found a large number of polychlorinated biphenols, otherwise known as PCBs, too.
Although PCBs were officially outlawed in the U.K. back during the 1970s, they can still be located in the likes of paint and electrical goods. As well as causing cancer, polychlorinated biphenols have been linked to other health issues such as thyroid and liver problems, as well as breathing difficulties.
So, how did these substances find their way into so many carpets? Well, Roberts claims that animals’ feet and humans’ shoes are largely to blame for these harmful substances arriving in our homes. Cleaning fluids, cooking and insecticides are also said to be major factors.
Incredibly, this combination of factors means that people may be 50 times more likely to encounter such toxins within the home than outside of it. And if you think that simply vacuuming a carpet can help reduce that figure, think again. In fact, bringing out the old Dyson could actually make things even worse.
“The largest reservoir of dust in a house.” That’s how Roberts described the average carpet in a 2001 interview with British newspaper The Daily Telegraph. He added, “A house with bare floors and a few areas of rugs will have about one-tenth of the dust found in a house with wall-to-wall carpet.”
Robert Lewis, the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s head of indoor air research, also appeared to back up Roberts’ claims. He told New Scientist magazine that pesticides that have been outlawed for a long time are able to survive much longer indoors. This is because they’ve been given protection from the weather conditions that would normally result in their dispersal.
In order to prove his theory, Lewis even dissected an array of carpets that ranged from one to three decades in age. And during his research he discovered numerous pesticides, including significant amounts of a poison known as permethrin.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lewis also discovered that the group most at risk from such toxins is children. Youngsters not only breathe more quickly than adults, but they’re also more likely to bring parts of their bodies into contact with their mouths.
Moreover, according to researchers it only takes a tiny amount of the toxins found in dust particles to cause significant damage. This includes restricting kids’ physical development, causing nerve damage and impeding their ability to hear. In a startling statistic, the average urban U.S. child aged one or under consumes more than 100 nanograms of the chemical benzopyrene. This essentially equates to a few cigarettes being smoked by them on a daily basis.
In 2013 New York’s city council decided to do something about the dangers of carpets by approving a bill to make them more environmentally friendly. This legislation ensured that carpets that failed to adhere to the Green Label Plus standard set by the Carpet and Rug Institute could no longer be sold in the city. As a result, the amount of toxins such as formaldehyde and benzene finding their way into New Yorkers’ homes would be drastically reduced.
Any store offering carpets that didn’t meet this standard would be subject to a penalty of up to $500. Russell Unger, the Urban Green Council’s executive director, told Crain’s New York Business that he didn’t expect the bill to be a problem for local retailers. He said, “The large majority of American manufacturers voluntarily abide by these standards.”
However, the carpet industry has been intent on contesting studies that cite carpets as a major risk to health. The Carpet and Rug Institute, in particular, has been very vocal about what it claims are “untruths and myths.” And in a piece published by the Kiss Carpet Design Center, the institute’s president Werner Braun was particularly keen to address the issue of chemicals.
Braun cited a 1994 study by the Environ Corporation of Arlington. It claimed, “For the chemicals identified as being present in, but not emitted from carpet, there is no reason to believe that they present any health risk of public concern. For chemicals identified as being from carpet, no cancer risk of public health concern is predicted for any chemical individually, or when the predicted upper limit on risk is added for all potential carcinogens.”
And Braun also claimed that carpets aren’t particularly dangerous when it comes to volatile organic compounds. He stated, “Most new interior furnishings and building materials emit VOCs for a period of time. Emissions from new carpet are among the lowest of any household’s indoor furnishings, and most VOCs dissipate within 24 hours – even faster with good ventilation.”