Carpeting has become ubiquitous in North America, covering more floors in homes, businesses, and institutions than all other floorcoverings combined. We love it for its softness, dirt-hiding ability, acoustic muffling, and low cost. Recently, however, carpets have come under fire for their potential role in indoor air quality problems, and they've been questioned for their typically short service life. Carpets have come to have two strongly contrasting images in our culture: they represent the warmth and comfort of home, but also the worst of our fossil-fuel based, disposable society.
Carpets have been gradually increasing their share of the floorcovering world for the last few decades. Once a luxury reserved for the very rich, carpets and rugs now cover 70% of the floors in the United States. In 1993 Americans purchased 5.5 square yards of carpet per person, or nearly 1.5 billion square yards total--enough to cover nearly 40% of Rhode Island. Between 1960 and 1993, carpet purchases grew by 654%, while the average cost of carpets in real dollars dropped dramatically. Cheap fossil fuels and mass production have made very inexpensive carpet possible. Our look at carpets addresses the indoor air quality (IAQ) concerns and also some broader environmental questions.
In 1988 the installation of new carpeting at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. led to a rash of health problems and complaints from the staff. This incident became the first highly publicized case of what has been called "sick building syndrome." Although the cause of the problem was never verified, speculation has focused on the adhesives used to install the carpet and on a chemical by-product known as 4-PC (4-phenylcyclohexene), which is released from the carpet's backing material. Several years later, in 1992, Dr. Rosalind Anderson in Dedham, Massachusetts ran some tests exposing mice to air drawn from carpet samples that people suspected were making them sick. Much to everyone's surprise, many of the samples caused severe neurotoxic reactions and even death. Moreover, it wasn't only new carpet she was testing. Some of the samples were up to twelve years old.
The Anderson Lab findings led to a flurry of activity and concern about health problems from carpets, but even now--two years after their first reports--little more is known about carpet toxicity, and some have cast serious doubts on the validity of the findings. Air quality expert Hal Levin explains that Anderson Labs is a commercial testing laboratory and not a research facility, and their methodology is not scientifically valid. The test Anderson uses, ASTM-E981, or the mouse bioassay test, was developed to determine respiratory irritation, not toxicity. The carpet samples from which the test air was drawn were heated to abnormal temperatures, and the mice were exposed to concentrations inappropriate even for the irritation test, according to Levin. Finally, the air samples to which the mice were exposed were never tested for concentrations of pollutants, even after the mice died.
EPA scientists, using their own equipment in Anderson's laboratory, also found mice dying, according to Anthony Pollino, an aide to Congressman Bernard Sanders who witnessed the tests. Yet when the EPA researchers attempted to replicate the results in their own labs, making modifications to increase the scientific validity of the tests, their results were much less conclusive. Although there are no widely accepted explanations for Anderson's results, much of the scientific community refuses to support her work. " I regard her results with a high degree of skepticism," says Dr. Alfred Hodgson of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories (LBL). In a recent North Carolina court case concerning health effects of carpeting, the judge refused to admit Anderson's affidavit testimony due to her lack of support from the scientific community.
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