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Carpets & Chemicals

Off-gassing of chemical emissions from consumer products or the presence of indoor chemicals are very real. Chemicals can impact your health, affect your mental functionality, affect your motor skills, and even ambition.

Recently, after building and moving into a new office, I developed a seizure disorder, in which I began to have 12-15 seizures per day. Everyone was baffled, including my physicians. The standard answer from these physicians is “you have seizure tendencies”–duh. The only change in my lifestyle that I could differentiate was the new office, even though I had been in the office for about 6 months. Having been involved in chemical emissions research, I began to rule out various products, which I knew had been tested and understood their emission decay curves.

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After about 8 days of seizures, I had eliminated every product in my office. The weather had recently turned cold and my office remained tightly closed for about 3 weeks. This complicated matters.

Carbon Monoxide Detector to the Rescue
Then I began to look at my gas heater. I had been using the heater intermittently for about 2 months, but once the weather warmed I would open the windows. During this 3 week cold snap, I was unable to introduce fresh air. I purchased a carbon monoxide detector from Home Depot that displays actual CO readings and found that high readings reached 408 part per million (PPM) about 4 times the alert level on most monitors. My physician concurred that continued exposure to moderate levels of carbon monoxide could create these seizures. I removed myself from the office for 10-12 hours and the seizures disappeared.

If I had not been involved in the carpet chemical emissions testing program, I would have read prior published literature (that has since been disproved) and would have immediately blamed carpet for this malaise. I would have been off track from the start and if I had replaced the carpet and the symptoms did not disappear, I would have begun to rationalize that I was permanently harmed. This was not the case, because I did not stop my search for the true culprit for these seizures.

Carpet has been used in homes, schools, corporate facilities, retail establishments and restaurants, hospitals and healthcare, government facilities, and industrial settings for more than 30 years. Environmental impact has never been a concern for millions of users of newly installed carpet products, or carpet products currently installed for 20 years or longer.

Some individuals, who consider themselves to be sensitive to chemicals, have begun to search for explanations for allergic-type reactions, which occur in some indoor environments.

EPA Studies and Indoor Pollutants
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies show that indoor pollutant levels can be 4-5 times higher than outdoor levels because of inadequate ventilation or poorly selected interior products. More than 90% of our time is spent indoors, and as a result, interior pollutant levels continue to be of particular concern. The study of airborne chemicals or volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) is a fairly new scientific discipline. While the characterization or identification of specific chemicals found in an indoor environment is fairly easy to discriminate, the evaluation and prediction of perceived health effects remains elusive.

As a by-product of this research, the term “multiple chemical sensitivity” (MCS) was developed to describe people with numerous symptoms attributed to unknown environmental factors. A few individuals have attributed MCS symptoms to the installation of new carpet, although these associations have no basis from direct scientific evidence. “The symptoms range from simple sensory irritation to the controversial diagnosis of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)”[1][1].

The concepts of MCS originated in the 1950’s with the theory that modern-day synthetic chemicals could produce symptoms of depression, irritability, mood swings, inability to concentrate, poor memory, fatigue, drowsiness, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, sneezing, runny nose, wheezing, itchy eyes and nose, skin rashes, headache, chest pain, muscle and joint pain, increased urinary frequency, swollen body parts, weight gain, psychotic episodes, and a whole host of other commonly explained disorders. “Many people are seeking special accommodations, applying for disability benefits, and filing lawsuits claiming that exposure to common foods and chemicals make them ill. Their efforts are supported by a small cadre of physicians who use questionable diagnostic and treatment methods. Critics charge that these approaches are bogus and that MCS is not a valid diagnosis”. [1][2] “These practitioners have been subjected to considerable criticism, and the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, and other leading medical organizations are on record as seriously questioning the beliefs, diagnoses and treatments of this group”[1][3].

While it is completely feasible that exposure to a specific chemical may produce a sensitivity to that specific chemical for an individual, the basis for MCS theory suggests that exposure to that specific chemical produces sensitivity to all chemicals. This is where the medical and scientific community fail to reach a common conclusion.

The mainstream medical community has been unable to reach agreement on the impact of low-level chemical exposure, if any, and, as a result does not recognize the diagnosis of multiple chemical sensitivity as a legitimate diagnosis. The point of disagreement is that MCS advocates suggest that exposure to one chemical can make an individual sensitive to ALL chemicals. Opponents of the MCS diagnosis believe that many of the symptoms reported by MCS patients can be likened to common allergies or, in some cases, can be linked to commonly occurring psychosomatic disorders. Attaching a medically- valid diagnosis to these psychological disorders can inhibit the treatment process. On the other hand, proponents of the theory offer case studies of how non-traditional medical practices have resolved MCS symptoms with some patients.

The primary complaint with regard to the damages caused by low level chemical exposure and the lingering effects is advocates of this theory have chosen to use the “paranoia” defense. Since no long-term studies have been performed to assess the contribution of long-term, low level chemical exposure, advocates surmise that since the theory cannot be disproved, the theory may have a valid place in medical diagnoses. One would only have to examine the history of cigarette smoking in our society to establish a long-term comparison.

The average cigarette smoker is exposed to more than 50,000 chemicals in each cigarette. Low level exposure to these chemicals over a 20-30 year cigarette smoking life-cycle has never produced one example of a cigarette smoker coming forward with complaints of MCS. While cigarette smokers inevitably die, most of the damage caused by this addiction is related to particle levels that damage the lungs, not exposure to chemicals. While lung cancer may be a contributing factor of these chemicals, a significant percentage of lung cancer patients were never smokers. The low level exposure to various chemicals in cigarettes over time has never produced an MCS diagnosis.

While the theories of MCS have been hotly debated, much effort and scientific resource has been dedicated to search for solutions to these issues, but at this time, the medical community is divided as to the proper approach in diagnosis and treatment. The most common approach initiated by the medical community has been that of chemical or allergen avoidance. However, since these chemicals occur naturally in the environment, reactions may occur at any time. While human nature encourages us to look for a direct source of emissions, a direct cause and effect relationship has been difficult to reproduce in controlled studies.

In exercising the practice of avoidance, it is imperative to be aware of the chemical emission properties of the products introduced into the environment. Many products such as office furniture or equipment (copiers, printers, personal computers, etc.), while not typically attributed to chemical sensitivities, can introduce substantial chemical levels into the environment. Other products, such as cleaning solutions, wall covering, ceiling tiles, and other interior finishes also contribute significant chemical emissions.

The carpet industry has taken a proactive approach in identifying the amounts and types of chemicals emitted from its products. Carpet products are routinely submitted for emissions testing under approved protocols for ASTM Standard D5116 All materials approved under the standard must comply with the low emitting standard.

Under the program, products must not contribute more than:

.05 mg/m3 of formaldehyde,
.5 mg/m3 of TVOC (total volatile organic compounds),
.005 mg/m3 of 4-PC (phenylcyclohexene).
While carpet does not contain formaldehyde, a possible carcinogen, the industry continues to test for its presence due to continuing erroneous media reports.

Complicating Factors
While a significant amount of dubious research has been performed regarding the impact of carpet on chemical sensitivities, controlled studies have yet to establish a direct cause and effect relationship between carpet emissions and sensitivity reactions. Much of the publicity surrounding carpet and chemical emissions has been initiated by two well-publicized incidents.

The first incident surrounded a 1988 carpet installation at EPA’s Waterside Mall facility in the Washington D.C area. This incident became the first highly publicized case of what has become to be known as “sick building syndrome”. The media reported IAQ complaints occurred immediately following the installation of new carpet. However, the media ignored the fact that the building had a long history of indoor air quality problems prior to the installation of new carpet. Subsequent findings by EPA, following media accounts, identified other commonly associated IAQ problems (extensive building renovation, inadequate fresh air ventilation, heavy infestation of fungi, heavy contamination of HVAC ducts, overpopulation, and poor facility maintenance), but these factors were never reported by the media. The incident concluded in a successful, multi-million dollar employee suit against EPA (later overturned), in which factors other than carpet installation were attributed to the cause of the sensitivity reactions.

The second catalyst for focusing attention on carpet, in respect to IAQ complaints, also was well publicized by the media, but the final outcome was never reported. This incident surrounded Dr. Rosalind Anderson’s flawed protocol for evaluating the effects of chemical emissions on lab mice.
In Dr. Anderson’s evaluation, which was actually a modification of an accepted laboratory practice (ASTM E981), lab mice were fitted with restraint collars and placed in a confined exposure chamber to monitor changes in breathing rate. Carpet samples were placed inside the chamber (a fish aquarium in Dr. Anderson’s case) and heated to 140°F. The animals were exposed to this elevated temperature for a period of 60 minutes, twice a day for two days, totaling four hours. The original ASTM E981 does not allow for repeated exposures and as a result, half of the tested animals died during subsequent exposures. Anderson reported that these deaths were attributable to chemical emissions from carpet samples, but it was later learned that no autopsies were performed to establish the cause of death.

Follow-up testing revealed that the animals were none to pleased to be returned to the elevated temperature environment in subsequent tests and autopsies suggested many of these animals may have died from asphyxiation and/or broken necks, apparently from struggling to escape the confined chamber.

In an attempt to better understand the work of Anderson Labs, EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) worked in conjunction with Anderson Labs. In this collaboration, EPA, two independent labs, and Anderson Labs conducted blind, round robin testing on carpet samples deemed “toxic” by Anderson Labs. “Blind” tests were performed using an empty chamber (two tests) and a chamber with two “suspect” carpets (two tests each). The two independent labs and EPA found no sensory irritation, no animal deaths, no neurotoxicity, and no pulmonary distress. Yet, the Anderson Labs findings, on the same carpet samples, revealed a 25% death rate on the test carpet and a 25% death rate on the empty chamber.

At the conclusion of this evaluation, the scientific community assessed her findings as another instance of “junk science”. Yet, enormous publicity was generated by the media of Dr. Anderson’s preliminary findings, but no other labs (including EPA) were able reproduce her findings. However, the media never reported these findings and never attempted to correct the misperceptions created in earlier accounts. Anderson Labs reported similar results from other products such as power cords, mattresses, computers, and telephones.

A number of lawsuits were initiated as a direct result of samples submitted to Anderson Labs. In one-such case in the U.S. District Court in Raleigh N.C., Anderson’s test protocol and testimony was challenged as being “junk science”. The judge reviewed rules handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court for inclusion of evidence and excluded the introduction of Anderson’s findings and excluded her introduction as an expert witness based on the Daubert vs. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals decision. This landmark Supreme Court decision was initiated to prevent the introduction of evidence that could not be replicated by other labs, and to restrict the use of “junk science” in reaching judgments. All subsequent cases to-date, brought as a result of the Anderson carpet testing, have been dismissed. In these cases, the judges ruled “Dr. Anderson’s testing fails to rise to the level of acceptable scientific testing. The courts rendered that her testing protocols were so poor and unreliable that the results were wholly without value.

Despite the inability of other labs to replicate Anderson’s test results and the inadmissibility of Anderson test results with regard to legal challenges, Anderson Labs continues to evaluate a variety of materials, and in some cases may impact product selection based on the flawed and unreliable protocol.

Did you know?
Carpet can actually have a positive impact on allergies if proper carpet cleaning is performed. Dust mites, mold, mildew, fungi, and allergens are easily removed with proper carpet cleaning. The carpet industry initiated a voluntary chemical emission testing program to assure consumers buying carpet that carpet chemical emissions are among the lowest of any household product.

About the Author
Michael Hilton was the original creator of Carpet Buyers Handbook. Having owned and operated a carpet wholesale company, Hilton has a vast knowledge about all-things carpet related as well as other types of flooring.