Carpets Cited as a Health Hazard, Especially for Children and Poor Communities

Photo Credit: Andrew Gustar/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0.

Many popular carpet brands, including those widely used in affordable housing projects, contain toxic chemicals that put people’s health at risk while in use and when the carpets are disposed of, according to a new report by three environmental advocacy groups.

The findings are particularly worrisome given that babies and children often spend considerable time crawling and playing on carpets, and they are most sensitive to the potential health consequences from the toxins detected, said Monica Wilson, associate director of the Berkeley-based Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, which contributed to the report.

Additionally, most carpets in the United States – including in California – are not recycled. That means many carpets end up in landfills and also incinerators, allowing toxins to be released into the air, she said. These incinerators are often located in poor communities where air pollution and health problems are already high, Wilson said. Wildfires, such as the recent ones in California, also increase the likelihood of carpet toxins ending up in the air when homes burn, she added.

“The problem is that these communities are exposed to a whole length of chemicals that are coming from carpets being burned and plastic being burned,” Wilson said. “(Manufacturers) need to get the toxins out and they need to make sure that … carpets end up at a recycling facility where they can be made into new carpet.”

Researchers tested 12 carpets made by America’s six largest carpet manufacturers, including carpets labeled as environmentally or ecologically friendly. They found all of the carpets contained toxins linked to health problems, including cancer, hormone disruption, respiratory disease, heart attacks, and immune and developmental problems in children.

Half of the carpets tested contained Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), which according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency don’t break down in the human body or in the environment, and accumulate over time. These chemicals have been tied to cancer, hormone disruption, low infant birth weight, and immune system problems.

Another five carpets contained phthalates, often used as a plasticizer in carpet backing, the report said. Phthalates have been linked to reproductive problems and hormone disruption, and as a result the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended parents reduce their children’s exposure to the chemicals.

One of the carpets tested, called the Super Flor, is widely used in affordable housing projects, the report said. Tests of the carpet turned up a hormone-disrupting chemical called 4-nonylphenol. Interface, the company that manufactures the Super Flor carpet, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The report was released Thursday by GAIA, the California-based Ecology Center and the Changing Markets Foundation, which is located in the Netherlands. GAIA has been advocating for improved carpet recycling regulations in California.

Last year, the state legislature passed a law setting the goal of boosting the carpet recycling rate to 24 percent by 2020. However, the state is still a long way from reaching that goal, Wilson said. To speed up the process, manufacturers must remove toxins from the carpets, and state regulators need to enforce carpet recycling, she said.

Thomas Helme, an environmental justice advocate in Stanislaus County, Calif., said he and other organizers there have long been concerned about carpet waste. He hadn’t read the report, but his organization, Valley Improvement Projects, has been advocating for increased carpet recycling in the county. Western Stanislaus County is home to one of only two trash incinerators in the state, he said. The incinerator is located in a largely poor, agricultural and industrial community, he said.

Helme said organizers believe air pollution from the incinerator, including burned carpet, is contributing to other toxins in the air.

“You can’t have a trash incinerator, multiple 1,000-square-foot warehouses with diesel trucks coming in and out, all other sources of air pollution in one area, and not be having an effect,” he said.

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