Dear Umbra,

Our home is mostly wood floors, but we would like to have a carpeted den. My gut instinct is that the carpet pad (looks like the foam from the inside of a car seat all smooshed together with other pieces) is full of chemicals that will constantly offgas. Am I right? If so, is there an alternative, or something to do so we can have a safe carpeted area?

Yosh Schulman
Millerton, N.Y.

Dearest Yosh,

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Almost all the articles I just read on your behalf started with the reasons carpet is our nation’s No. 1 floor covering: comfort, ease of purchase, low, low price. These are great reasons to buy something, in my opinion — so it’s unfortunate that carpet is hella nasty in practice, and should be avoided.

Go for a rug instead.

Photo: iStockphoto.

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Carpet pad provides squishy backing and gives carpet its softness underfoot; it also protects the carpet backing to a certain extent. Carpets themselves are usually either woven or tufted material, tied and glued to a backing for stability. Almost all carpet fabric is petroleum based, with wool the exception. Turning sheep and oil into fibers is water and chemical intensive, even before the dyeing process adds millions of gallons of wastewater to the area surrounding Dalton, Ga. — carpet capital of the United States.

The worst part of carpet manufacture, which should make us all care enough to avoid this stuff, is the volatile organic compounds in the adhesives. You know, our old friends benzene and toluene. How I tire of their constant presence. It is they and others that offgas, making some sick and others worry.

The good news is, there are carpets that are less toxic, and some carpet companies — like Interface — have reportedly worked quite hard to reduce their environmental impacts over the past decade or so. Recommendations include buying wool if you can afford it; buying carpet “tiles” instead of a broadloom piece, as individual tiles can be replaced easily; finding carpet made with low-VOC adhesives that meets Carpet and Rug Institute indoor-air quality standards; using tacks instead of adhesive; and looking for recycled content or reclaimed carpet. When it comes to padding, there are options made of wool or recycled materials that don’t require adhesives, so do look around.

Still, any way you slice it, carpet as it currently exists is not the No. 1 floor choice for the greater earth environment. I feel my only hope of dissuading homeowners, however, is to talk about the definite drawbacks of carpet within the home environment. Sure, VOC offgassing is disputed, Scotchgard is optional, the anti-fungal yuckies in the carpet might be avoided if you find the right manufacturer. What you will not be able to avoid is the mold, dust mites, and collected environmental toxins that you will drag into the house over time and will not be able to kill, even by steam heat. Have you ever seen the grime in floor cracks, or found it wedged in a hard-to-clean corner of the house? That is mashed into your carpet permanently, along with all the toxins already in the carpet. Avoid.

If you have the financial flexibility, go with large area rugs. They can be cleaned: vacuumed on both sides, shaken, taken to a professional. And for all you home décor mavens, they are easier to change with the shifting fashion winds.


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