Why you should be aware of VOCs in carpet and how to deal with them.
Ahhh… love the smell of VOCs in carpet in the morning – said no one ever!
What are VOCs in Carpet? If you have ever bought a brand new car; then you will be familiar with that “new car smell”. Many people love this smell. There are even car deodourisers called “new car smell”! The same however, cannot be said for that “new carpet smell”. If you have ever had carpets installed in your home or office then you have probably experienced the unpleasant smell. These are “toxic” fumes otherwise known as VOCs and they can be hazardous to your health. What causes the fumes? How can you minimise the impact on the health of you and your family? How do you deal with VOCs in carpet?
What are VOCs and why are they in my new carpet?
VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds which are chemical contaminants made up mainly of carbon and hydrogen. They are found in almost all manufactured products. This includes soft furnishings, cosmetics, clothing, plastic bottles, paint and other building materials, cars and clothing. At room temperature, these VOCs are released into the environment in the form of gas which evaporates into the air. This process is sometimes called off-gassing.
In the case of synthetic carpets, most, but not all of these VOCs are destroyed in the manufacturing process. The carpet is “baked” at 150-170c in a finishing oven which eliminates many of the chemicals. Some would argue that of most common flooring options, carpet is the lowest emitter of VOCs, When you install new carpet in your home however, there will still be some low level VOC emissions for a few days. Especially when you add in the VOCs from the underlay and adhesives used in the installation process as well as chemical residue from dye stuffs.
4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PCH) is the VOC most commonly associated with new carpet. 4-PCH is a by-product of the manufacture of synthetic latex and it has a low odour threshold (0.5 parts per billion). In the past, natural latex had been associated with allergic reations in some people, therefore, synthetic latex was developed by carpet manufacturers to use as a backing to replace natural latex. The presence of 4-PCH can be detected at extremely low concentrations when the carpet is first laid. Low level exposure to 4-PCH from carpet, combined with other emission products, has been associated with headaches, eye irritation, and nausea. However studies have concluded that there are no adverse long term health issues associated with low level exposure to 4-PCH ( see link above for full study).
Are VOCs in carpet dangerous?
At present, there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to VOCs causes long term health issues. However, there is plenty of evidence pointing towards, short term effects. Especially those experienced by people exposed to high levels of VOCs. These short term effects include, head aches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, skin and throat irritations. These effects vary depending on the type of chemicals, the concentration level of the VOCs and how long the person is exposed to them. A person’s age, gender, general health condition and exposure to other chemicals can all play a role determining the effects VOCs have on their health. People who experience asthma or other respiratory conditions or are particular sensitive to chemicals, should try to avoid exposure to VOCs.
Studies involving mice, have shown that long term exposure to high levels of VOCs can increase the risk of cancer, liver and kidney disease in animals. While not yet proven, it is thought to also affect humans in the same way. However there is not a lot of information on the long term health effects of low level household exposure from VOCs in carpet.
Scientists at organisations such as the EPA are still researching what are the specific chemicals released by carpets and whether or not they are dangerous for the average person. Generally the VOCs in carpets are low level and any short term effects go away once the person stops being exposed to the VOCs. Until more is known about the impact on our health, the EPA recommends exposure to VOCs is kept at a minimum.
Has the Australian Government set standards for VOCs in carpets?
There are no specific regulations set for VOCs in carpets or even general indoor air quality by the Australian Government, except for regulations on some specific substances in the workplace.
There is also no single Australian Government authority to oversee indoor air quality in Australia. This is because it is difficult to regulate and enforce set standards in private homes. Individual state authorities and organisations, however are able to offer recommendations and guidelines. These guidelines are based on information and research into air pollutants and their impact on our health. The Australian Carpet Institute is one such organisation, setting standards for carpet chemical emissions and carpet labeling. The Green Building Council of Australia is another organisation who sets standards and rating systems for low VOC emissions in building materials.
How can I minimise the health risks of VOCs in carpet?
To minimise the risks from VOCs in carpet, it is important to ensure good ventilation. Especially when using or installing products and materials which emit VOCs. Ventilation means bringing in air from outside to mix with the indoor air and can be as simple as opening lots of windows.
- New carpet can emit VOCs in low levels, for several days after being installed. Therefore it is worth asking your carpet supplier or installer if the carpet can be left unrolled for a few days at their warehouse before installation. This will allow some of the VOCs time to dissipate before bringing the carpet into your home.
- Ensure your carpet installer uses underlay and adhesives that only emit low levels of VOCs, as often these are the culprits for high VOC levels, rather than the carpet.
- It is also important to run your ventilation system for at least 72 hours after carpet installation.
- Where possible, open the windows and position fans next to the windows to blow in the fresh air.
- Close the doors to the areas with new carpet and try to stay out of those rooms for a few days.
- High temperatures can speed up the off-gassing so if you can close the doors to the area and turn up the heat. Just remember to stay out of the rooms until they have completed the off gassing process and then air them out well. Repeat a few times as necessary.
- Indoor plants can help with indoor air quality and help remove VOCs.
- You can try a portable air purifier with an activated carbon filter, to try and eliminate lingering odours. Activated carbon filtered air purifiers can trap air contaminants, however standard air purifiers, electronic air cleaners and HEPA filters, probably will not be effective.
- Vacuuming, followed by hot water extraction (steam cleaning) using low VOC detergent, will help remove chemicals causing VOC emissions.
- It could even be a good time to take a short holiday!
The Australian Carpet Institute, has developed a standard for carpet with low VOC emissions. This standard is called the Green Label Plus. These “green” carpets have lower VOC emissions than other synthetic carpets and are definitely worth considering. However you should make sure the underlay and adhesive used by the carpet installer are also “green” and have low VOC emissions. This is due to the fact that often the glue can emit more VOCs than the carpet!
Natural fibres such as wool and cotton with backing made from Jute or other grassy fibres are usually much longer lasting. Natural fibres are also lower in VOCs than carpets made from synthetic fibres such as nylon or olefin. Sisal is gaining popularity as a “green” floor covering as it is grown with minimal peticides. It is a natural fibre and therefore does not emit any VOCs at all and is long lasting and hard wearing. The only issue with Sisal is that it cannot be wet cleaned like traditional carpets. Synthetic carpets are usually backed with potentially harmful PVC plastic.
How do I maintain my new carpet and keep it VOC free?
Once you have installed your new carpet and aired out the rooms , you need to ensure you vacuum your carpet regularly. It is best to use a vacuum cleaner that has a filter and strong suction. Carpet is a great filter itself, as it traps VOCs, from other sources, as well as dirt and dust. However factors like, poorly filtered vacuum cleaners or the kids playing on the carpet, cause agitation. This is when the VOCs and dust can become air born again. It is important, therefore, to remove them with regular, well filtered, vacuum cleaning.
The Australian Carpet Institute of also recommends hot water extraction using low emission VOC cleaning agents as the best method of cleaning carpets. Hot water extraction (steam cleaning) uses heat and water to wash the carpet fibres. Followed by strong suction (extraction) the remove the VOCs and dirt.