If you are like many consumers who have read so many carpet horror stories in the news, you are probably considering whether carpet is safe for homeowners, including children and pets. Media accounts of chemical emissions, high lead levels tracked in from outdoor soils, pesticides used in manufacture, allergies, bacteria in carpet, and diseases such as Kawasaki Syndrome, all have created hysteria when aired on nightly TV news magazine shows. Each of these issues makes good news stories. They involve emotional issues and frighten us into watching a program or reading the advertisements adjacent to the articles, but the amount of truth connected with these issues is generally lacking.
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Often these news stories are the result of a preliminary finding or questionable test methods, which becomes the hot news item of the day. Rarely do journalists return to the story and correct misperceptions created once the final answers are in and the initial reports have been invalidated. Instead, these stories are added to the long list of myths that are continually generated but rarely corrected.
Generally, once these myths are have been reported and health symptoms have been listed, it is normal for individuals to connect existing ailments to these stories and attribute the cause for their malaise to the item identified in the news story. Unfortunately, these symptoms are usually common, regularly occurring health complaints such as headaches, runny nose, itchy, watery eyes, congestion, constipation, diarrhea, and other assorted ailments. While it is a fact of human nature to attempt to explain the occurrence of these ailments on changes in the surrounding environment, it can be counterproductive when causes are mislabeled or incorrectly diagnosed.
In fact, numerous common ailments that have been attributed to common environmental changes may lead to psychological ailments far more difficult to treat. For instance, in the case of ceiling tiles that emit low levels of formaldehyde, some individuals may attempt to explain health complaints to the installation of these tiles. Once replaced with non-formaldehyde emitting ceiling tiles, some individuals may become convinced that their health has been permanently affected by the original installation, when health affects do not clear up immediately after ceiling tile replacement. In all actuality, these ailments may have existed prior to the ceiling tile installation, and identifying ceiling tile as possible cause simply provides substantiation that these symptoms are a result of environmental impact.
Carpet and Chemical Emissions
In the case of chemical emissions from carpet, just such an event occurred in 1987. The EPA Waterside Mall facility in Washington D.C. underwent extensive renovation and carpet was the last renovation item to be completed prior to the move-in. Following the carpet installation, a number of employees complained of watery eyes, burning throats, and other classic indoor air quality (IAQ) complaints. Since carpet was the last renovation to be completed, an informal connection was made. Since carpet touches all of our lives, the media was given a story that would reach everyone in America. Later investigations revealed the cause to be poor facility maintenance, inadequate ventilation, and overcrowding, but the media never corrected the misperceptions created.
Several years later when the identification and classification of airborne chemicals was in its early stages of development, Dr Rosalind Anderson burst onto the scene with her famous mouse studies. According to Dr. Anderson, who had taken carpet samples and heated them to 140 degrees F., chemical emissions from carpet had killed mice in her lab. The media immediately pounced into action. Other labs tried to replicate the findings but were unable to reach the same conclusions. However the media continued to report the results of Dr. Anderson’s findings, while ignoring the findings of other respectable scientists. It was later found that Dr. Anderson had altered a scientific protocol, which produced the deaths. It was established that the mice died of strangulation from restraint collars rather than chemical emissions for carpet. The media never reported these results.
As a result of this episode the carpet industry initiated voluntary testing of carpet products for chemical emissions (see CRI Green Label Testing Program) . Since carpet was the first product to be widely tested, chemical emissions were initially thought to be high. However, as testing of other products became more common, it was found that chemical emissions from carpet were extremely low. Hundreds of times below any known level that would produce health effects. Carpet, for example, emits several hundred times less the emissions of other flooring products and ten times less those of ordinary furniture. The media continues to research old news stories for current articles and reports continue to surface pertaining to carpet emissions, but these stories have long been proven to be untrue, especially among members of the scientific community.
Carpet and Kawasaki Syndrome
Another notable carpet-related news event that continues to resurface in family magazines and the occasional newspaper article is the dubious connection between carpet cleaning and Kawasaki Syndrome (KS). Kawasaki Syndrome is a very serious childhood disease that resembles Scarlet Fever. A cause has yet to be established, but an outbreak in Denver in 1983 created media excitement when a survey of the 23 children who contracted KS indicated that 11 of the 23 children had been exposed to carpet cleaning during the 6-month period prior to contracting the disease. The media was quick to suggest that this deadly disease could be attributed to carpet cleaning. Subsequent outbreaks failed to draw a correlation between carpet cleaning and KS, but the media continues to research these old articles to write current articles. KS was first discovered in Japan in 1963 where outbreaks are frequent with large numbers of children acquiring the disease each year. Japan is a culture that has not traditionally used carpet. The cause for KS has never been identified. Carpet should not be a concern as it relates to Kawasaki Syndrome.
Dust Mites, Allergies and Carpet
Allergists routinely recommend carpet removal due to allergy concerns based on an allergen avoidance theory. Allergists believe that if all possible places where allergen can be held are eliminated, allergic reactions will disappear. However, the removal of carpet has never produced a reduction in allergic reactions. The incidence of allergy sufferers that use carpet is about the same as for those who avoid carpet. Numerous studies have been performed in cultures that do not use carpet and allergy rates per capita are very similar to the U.S. culture where heavy carpet use is the norm.
In 1973, based on anecdotal evidence that carpet contributed to allergic reactions, the Swedish government banned the used of carpet in all public facilities. Carpet was replaced with hard surface flooring materials in homes, commercial environments, government buildings, and carpet market share fell from approximately 20% of the market share to less than 2% of the total flooring market share. Follow-up studies by the Swedish Central Statistics Bureau indicated a dramatic increase in reported allergies by the Swedish population following carpet replacement. As carpet was removed and hard surface flooring was installed, the incidence of allergy increased among the Swedish population. This alarming increase was in direct proportion to the amount of hard flooring materials installed. This ban was removed after 17 years when the dramatic increase in allergic reactions was confirmed.
In recent years, numerous investigations have begun to question the practice of avoidance and began to look at routes of exposure for allergens that are impossible to avoid. Researchers understand that allergic reactions are caused by exposure to specific allergens, but these respiratory allergens typically must be inhaled or ingested to produce a respiratory response.
Dust mite allergen has been a concern since its initial discovery as a primary allergen in the 1960’s. Allergists routinely test for mite allergen sensitivity and historical data reveals that a significant number of their patients reveal a low tolerance to this allergen. However, allergists stop short of stating that allergic reactions have been caused by a specific allergen, because of an inability to trace reactions to a specific cause.
In microscopic terms, dust mites are extremely large. The allergen (fecal pellets, body parts etc) is quite heavy as well. Numerous scientific evaluations have failed to produce airborne dust mite allergen from carpet during periods of activity, despite heavy occupant activity. Since dust mite allergen is difficult to disturb, reactions may only be exacerbated by direct surface contact or direct inhalation from surfaces, such as pillows or mattresses, or hand to nose. Hence, mite allergic individuals rarely suffer a reaction when entering a carpeted room containing heavy dust mite infestations.
Most of the mite allergen in the home can be found in pillows, mattresses, or upholstered furniture. In fact, as much as 30% of the weight of the average pillow is comprised of dead human skin scales (dust mite food source) and dust mite allergen. The average mattress can weigh as much as 100 pounds more than when originally purchased due to the accumulation of this matter. While carpet is typically mentioned in connection with allergies, pillow and mattress accumulations of these allergens pose a far greater exposure risk.
Dust mite allergen should be distinguished from cat allergen or various types of fungi (mold and mildew). These allergens can easily be detected in air samples and, because of their small size, they can easily be aerosolized. To examine the propensity of dust mite allergen to become airborne, a project conducted in a south Florida school was undertaken to access the airborne exposure risk of mite allergen contained in carpet. This study failed to identify airborne dust mite allergen in a carpeted classroom despite heavy mite allergen concentration in the carpet and questions the universal assumption that carpet contributes to allergic reactions stimulated by mite allergen content in carpet.
For those who remain unconvinced that carpet does not exacerbate mite allergen, but prefer the comfort of carpet, there is good news. Recent investigations show that carpet cleaning reduces the amount of mite allergen in carpet by more than 90% with each carpet cleaning. Dust mites tend to have seasons in which they proliferate. Due to elevated humidity, dust mite populations tend to increase during the spring and summer and the population diminishes during the heating season when the air becomes much drier. By scheduling carpet cleaning in bedrooms, media rooms, or other rooms, where time is spent on the floor, during September and October, allergen can effectively be removed before accumulation of allergen becomes an exposure risk.
In addition to regular carpet cleaning, new treatments have become available which have been proven to be effective in eradicating dust mites. Some products containing benzyl benzoate have received mixed scientific reviews relating to their efficacy. To date, the most effective product brought to market is a product produced by The Ecology Works (1-888-353-2649 http://www.dustmitex.com/). This EPA registered product, (Dust Mite Control) can be added to the rinse water of a portable extractor (Rug Doctor, Etc) and applied during the carpet cleaning process, or it may be applied as a separate treatment on a regular basis to prevent the accumulation of dust mite populations and their associated allergen.
Fungi (mold and mildew), also a primary allergen, is found in every environment. Numerous studies indicate there is no difference in airborne mold (fungi) levels above various flooring surfaces regardless of contaminant levels on/within the flooring surface. Other studies show that hot water extraction (steam cleaning) of carpet is much more effective in removing fungi from within the carpet pile than wet mopping of hard surface flooring materials.
Cat Allergen is less often blamed for allergic reactions in homes, schools and commercial environments because they rarely reside in these environments, but air sampling inevitably reveals the presence of cat allergen in most instances. Cat allergen is extremely small and remains airborne for long periods. It is introduced into homes, school, and commercial environments that do not house these pets on the clothes and garments of cat owners. Cat allergen can be an extreme irritant for those who demonstrate sensitivity to the allergen.
Cockroach allergen has recently come to the forefront in allergy investigations and has come to be recognized as another extreme irritant and respiratory allergen. Recent studies performed in low income housing units have revealed an abundance of cockroach allergen and may explain the high incidence of allergic disease among children residing in these units. Like cat allergen, cockroach allergen can be found in almost every indoor environment. Cockroach allergen easily becomes airborne and requires an extraction method, such as vacuuming or hot water extraction, to remove. Wet mopping and especially dry mopping of hard surfaces is not an effective extraction technique for these allergens.
In examining the relationship of carpet and reported allergic reactions in schools, it is important to examine historical data related to flooring use and reported reactions. Sixty-six percent of all schools report allergic-type symptoms related to the building environment. Yet less than 36% of available floor space is carpeted. In homes where allergic individuals reside, a closer examination reveals there is no difference in the incidence of allergies in homes or schools predominately carpeted and homes or schools without carpet.
It also must be noted that even though all carpet is characterized under one classification, there are numerous qualities of carpet with numerous construction characteristics. Residential carpet is very different from commercial carpet in its release characteristics. Loose constructions, have the tendency to release far more contaminants than tighter constructions.
For any flooring surface, effective maintenance and utilizing the philosophy of cleaning for health is a primary element in ensuring occupant wellness. Carpet acts as a trap for airborne allergen. Once allergen becomes entrapped within the pile of the carpet, it must be removed. Without carpet to act as a filter, allergen tends to remain airborne or may become airborne with each footstep. Studies reveal carpet is very effective in trapping this allergen without releasing it into the breathing zone. Carpet cleaning has proven to be very effective in extracting this allergen and removing it from the indoor environment. A good common sense approach for people with allergies is to install carpet and perform regular carpet cleaning to remove the allergen.
In comparing the allergen removal efficiency of carpet and wood or tile flooring, allergen removal is much more effective with carpet than with hard surfaces. Vacuuming of hard surfaces can be initiated as an effective extraction tool, but vacuuming of hard floors is rarely performed.
Long-term studies have shown that proper carpet selection, along with an adequate carpet care program, can reduce the amount of allergen in carpet and provide a suitable living environment. In one such study, dust mite allergen levels in carpet were significantly reduced over the course of one year. The study involved 12-year old carpet that had received neglectful carpet care. Despite heavy concentrations of mite allergen, levels were continually reduced over the course of the study. Hot water extraction alone produced a 92% reduction, while vacuuming continued to reduce allergen levels on a daily basis. No airborne dust mite allergen was detected during the two-year study. This study was performed using regular carpet care only. The use of acaricidal treatments may enhance the results of routine carpet care.
Allergens can found in any environment. The presence of allergen on any surface does not necessarily identify a source of allergens or a cause for allergic reactions. The ability to remove these allergens or a flooring surface’s ability to contain these allergens without releasing them into the breathing zone should be the primary factor in choosing floor covering material. Carpet can fulfill these requirements by providing a surface that absorbs airborne allergen without releasing them into the breathing zone and provides construction characteristics that allows for effective removal as a result of routine carpet care.
Key Points to Consider
The replacement of carpet with a smooth flooring surface does not produce the results expected by allergy patients.
Allergy rates per capita in cultures that do not use carpet are very similar to the U.S. culture where heavy carpet use is the norm.
In 1973, based on anecdotal evidence that carpet contributed to allergic reactions, the Swedish government banned the used of carpet in all public facilities. Follow-up studies by the Swedish Central Statistics Bureau indicated a dramatic increase in reported allergies by the Swedish population following carpet replacement. This alarming increase was in direct proportion to the amount of hard flooring materials installed.
While a majority of allergy suffers exhibit sensitivities to dust mite allergen, allergists stop short of stating that specific allergic reactions have been caused by mite allergen.
Numerous scientific evaluations have failed to produce airborne dust mite allergen from carpet during periods of activity, despite heavy occupant activity.
Cat, fungi, and cockroach allergen may produce more allergic reactions than any other allergen because of their small size and tendency to become airborne.
Because of the lack of an effective “extraction” method for cleaning of hard surface flooring materials, allergen, especially fungi, is not removed from the facility.