With a crawling baby in my home, I was very worried when it was time to install a new carpet. Is it safe and does it off-gas chemicals like formaldehyde?
Does a new carpet really give off harmful fumes in your home? In short, yes. While it may not be formaldehyde that most people expect to be the primary culprit here, carpets can release many other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The manufacturing process of using mostly synthetic materials and having to heat up the carpet to high temperatures in order to apply dyes and adhesives will inevitably introduce a lot of harmful chemicals into your home.
Let’s take a look at what you need to beware of and what you can do to protect you and your family.
How Long Does Carpet Off-Gassing Last?
When installed in your home, the carpet will off-gas most considerably during the first 24 to 48 hours after installation.
Most flooring materials off-gas during the manufacturing process anyway, but don’t let that fool you. Long-term exposure at lower levels can be just as dangerous as short-term exposure at higher levels. After the initial 48-hour period after installation, you should expect your carpet to continue to off-gas for years at lower levels.
So not only will you need to take precaution when first installing the carpet, but you’ll also need to find ways to eliminate off-gassing for years to come. The good news is that carpet is among the lowest VOC-emitting flooring materials anyway, so it shouldn’t be difficult to do.
Does A New Carpet Give Off Formaldehyde?
Most carpets aren’t going to give off a noteworthy amount of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is more commonly found in composite wood products. Your home might still contain formaldehyde in some of the furniture pieces and laminate flooring in your home, though.
However, there are hundreds of other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) besides formaldehyde that your new carpet might be giving off. It’s important to note that we’re talking about all of the carpet here. Just because you chose a wool carpet over a synthetic nylon one doesn’t mean that it won’t give off any VOCs. The adhesive and backing may still contain VOCs, even if the pile on top is natural.
How Is Carpet Made and What Are the Chemicals In It?
A carpet is made of a top part we often refer to as a pile and usually has two layers of backing at the bottom. While it would be nice to have a carpet pile made of wool, it can get expensive if you’re trying to buy wall-to-wall carpeting. Instead, the piles nowadays are most often made of synthetic fibers that are tufted directly into the stiff backing.
The yarn for the pile that’s created in the factory is usually made of polyester, nylon, polypropylene (olefin) and acrylic. The carpet could be made of just one of these ingredients, all of them, or a combination of some. Nylon is the most common component for standard residential use carpet because it tends to be the most durable and stain-resistant choice.
The two layers of backing are made of polypropylene. The pile is then dyed and an adhesive is applied in between each of the three layers to bind them. This usually involves the use of latex, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or bitumen, among others. There are quite a few types of adhesives that can be used, but they commonly are petroleum-based.
The most common type of underlayment (or padding) sold is made of a recycled foam known as rebond. It’s usually made up of recycled urethane and polyurethane components. Although, you could also buy non-recycled underlayment foam known as prime foam. Either way, the chemicals inside are pretty much the same.
As you can tell by now, your carpet can have quite the number of synthetic chemicals that can off-gas as VOCs.
Most of the off-gassing that happens is from the 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PCH) that the latex used for the adhesive gives off. 4-PCH gives off a pungent odor that can linger for days, even weeks sometimes. The dye can also be a major source of VOCs in your carpet.
How to Minimize All These Toxic Fumes
Now that you should have a general sense of all the chemicals that might off-gas from your new carpet, let’s take a look at non-toxic alternatives instead.
I encourage you visit The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) first, before you do anything else. The CRI has developed a VOC emission test for carpets. It’s a voluntary program carpet manufacturers participate in to prove that their product is superior when it comes to chemical emissions and indoor air quality.
Each carpet is subjected to testing for 14 days, during which VOC emissions measurements are taken for 35 chemicals that are tested according to the California 01350 standards as well.
However, the CRI program not only meets the California standards of VOC emissions (thought to be one of the most stringent standards), but it also far exceeds them. In addition to the 35 chemicals listed under California 01350, it takes it a step further by testing the following 15 chemicals for emissions:
In the carpet:
- 2-Ethylhexanoic Acid
- 4-Phenylcyclohexene (4PCH)
In the cushion:
- 4-Phenylcyclohexene (4PCH)
In the adhesive:
- 1-Methyl-2 Pyrrolidinone
- 4-Phenylcyclohexene (4PCH)
- Methyl Biphenyl
- Vinyl Cyclohexene
After the test is complete, the carpet is then evaluated for total VOC emissions. If the total VOCs emissions are 0.5 mg/m³ or less, the carpet will receive CRI’s Green Label Plus label. Look for this label when shopping for your next carpet. You can also find a full list of all certified carpets directly on CRI’s website.
Another carpet certification you can look for is the Cradle to Cradle program. This program has 5 levels of certification – Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum, essentially vouching for the eco-friendliness and sustainability of a carpet. Although this program primarily deals with sustainability on a global level, you can still take advantage of its benefits for your own home.
Just like the CRI Green Label Plus program, the Cradle to Cradle program is also modeled after California 0.1350 VOC emission standards. The total VOCs emissions must be 0.5 mg/m³ or less under this program as well.
However, to ensure that you’re getting the most out of it, look for only the Gold or Platinum certifications. The three lower-level certifications (Basic, Bronze, and Silver) do not test VOCs for hydrocarbons, which are found in the petroleum-based adhesives.
There are many carpet manufacturers who are participating in this program. Shaw Industries is leading the way, touting that over 85% of their carpets are now Cradle to Cradle certified. But remember, the Gold and Platinum certifications are your best bet if you want a safer carpet.
While it’s a good idea to look for low VOC emissions in a carpet, it’s a little like looking for the best of two lesser evils. Ideally, it’s best to look for a natural carpet that doesn’t even give off VOCs or need any testing in the first place. One new carpet that you may have heard of attempts to be as natural as possible. Triexta, as it’s called, is a polyester carpet that eliminates the petroleum chemicals and substitutes them with corn glucose.
You may have heard of triexta under another name like Sorona, PTT, or SmartStrand. Although it’s far from being perfect, at least you’ll know that a portion of the VOCs have been eliminated if you decide to purchase this carpet.
Can You Sleep In a Room With New Carpet?
Of course, you can! But it doesn’t mean that you should ignore it, either. There are many smart ways to go about it so that you don’t wake up the next morning with a scratchy throat and feeling sick.
A lot of this advice is just common sense. You can choose to have carpets installed during a time of year when you can open the windows and let the VOCs air out. You can also sleep in another room during the first two nights after installation. Don’t be shy to ask your installer to roll out the carpet in their warehouse first, so that it can air out before it’s brought into your home.
Try to avoid gluing down carpet to the floor and stay away from adhesives if you can. If your carpet must be glued down to a concrete subfloor, make sure your contractor uses zero VOC or low VOC adhesives. You also can be more picky about the underlayment. Not all underlayments have to be made of polyurethane foam. The next commonly available carpet pad is memory foam, although memory foam is just as notorious for VOC off-gassing. Felt might be a better alternative – there are plenty of products made of recycled wool and natural rubber that you can use as an underlayment.
An air purifier can solve the problem of initial off-gassing for you in a matter of hours, so it may even be possible to sleep in the room immediately. But you’ll have to make sure you get an air purifier that has an activated carbon filter. VOCs are small chemicals and activated carbon is the only mechanical filter that’s safe and powerful enough at trapping them. If the room where the carpet is installed is large or has high ceilings, also make sure that the air purifier is powerful enough to create enough airflow in the entire space.
Carpet Off-Gassing When You Have a Baby
If you have a baby who’s crawling on the new carpet, you’ll need to go beyond just the few tips given here. The CRI Green Label Plus program is a good start, but there are other things you can do to ensure your baby is safe.
Before you let your baby sleep in the room, allow for enough cross-ventilation. Open the child’s window and let the VOCs out before reintroducing the baby back to his or her room. Remember, just because the pungent odor is gone doesn’t mean that the VOCs are, too. Some VOCs are completely odorless and can persist for years, virtually undetectable by our senses.
Adsorbants to Pick Up the New Carpet Smell
Once the room has been well ventilated, adsorption becomes your best friend against VOCs. Adsorption, in this case, means that you introduce things to the room that have pores small enough to trap the VOCs.
Buy a few activated bamboo charcoal bags and place them on the dresser, out of baby’s reach. I’ve talked about them here and I absolutely love them! They’re ridiculously inexpensive, fully sustainable and last two years.
Activated charcoal is the same thing as activated carbon, so you can place an air purifier with an activated carbon filter in your baby’s room too. I hope you’ll stay away from ozone generators. Those will do more harm than good. Most manufacturers use the term “ionizer” to describe this setting on their air purifiers. While not all ionizers will generate ozone, it’s best to play it safe unless the manufacturer specifically shows proof that their air purifier is completely ozone-free.
Although not as potent as activated charcoal, another solution that also adsorbs some of the new carpet fumes is baking soda. An equal solution of vinegar and baking soda diluted in some water is an old method that still works today. Place the solution throughout the home in small, open containers to help pick up some of the new carpet off-gassing during the first week after the carpet install.