Carpet of Chemicals: Are There Alternatives?
By Christie Keith
I'm always fascinated by those carpet ads on TV.... you know the ones, where the family with hyperactive triplet boys and a three-month-old golden retriever has a house with wall-to-wall white carpet? I mean, I don't care WHAT kind of chemical they put on that stuff, white carpet and kids don't mix.
However, commercials like this create a totally unrealistic idea in people's minds of what to expect from a floor covering. Our quest for two mutually exclusive goals (our actual lifestyles, and the lifestyles of the rich and white-carpeted) have led us to some compromises.
From the production of synthetic carpet to its installation in the home, there are toxins and hazardous chemicals used at nearly every step of the process. Most carpets today are made from fibers derived from petroleum. They are bonded to their backings with natural or synthetic latex. They are treated with pesticides, bleaches, dyes, stain protectants, and anti-static solutions. Add to this mixture anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents, as well as chemical baths containing substances like chlorine, bromine, and phosphorous to render the carpet non-flammable.
What is wrong with this picture? Many of these substances are not approved for use in our clothing or bedding, for instance, and are not meant to come in contact with our skin. And yet, how many of us have pets or children who crawl, nap, and play on our carpets? How many of us sit or lie on the floor when watching television? How many of us live in energy-efficient new homes which seal the air in, not allowing fresh air to replace the outgasses of our shiny, stain resistant, flame-retardant, insect, fungus, and bacteria-proof carpeting?
Is there an alternative? There are many. First of all, it's not really sanitary to have an absorbent floor covering permanently installed in a home. Rugs in times gone by were laid on top of wood, stone, or other hard surfaces, and were removed several times a year for a thorough airing and cleaning. This tended to discourage mold, fungus, and bacteria. Hardwood or other wooden floors with large area rugs are cleaner and safer than wall-to-wall carpeting. Pine floors or natural linoleums are a less expensive alternative to hardwood.
Many companies now sell untreated or natural fiber area rugs, even in sizes which should be sufficient for the largest room. Pottery Barn sells untreated wool area rugs in its catalogue, in a variety of attractive colors, including reds, blues, and greens. The Real Goods catalogue also sells a more limited selection of rugs, mostly in natural colors. There are a number of manufacturers of natural and untreated carpets listed in the books Environmental by Design: Volume 1: Interiors, and The Natural House as well.
If your heart is set on wall-to-wall carpet, there are some ways to make it less environmentally hostile. First, use a natural fiber such as wool. While more expensive, wool is naturally stain-resistant and tends to clean well without needing to be chemically treated. Two, buy carpeting in realistic colors. If you have kids and pets, get kid-and-pet-colored carpet. I have found moss green to be both beautiful and almost indestructible. Heathered patterns are also excellent for masking dirt and paw prints. Three, avoid strong and toxic cleaning agents. Enzymatic products made to remove pet stains and odors from carpets, such as Nature's Miracle, can be used in carpet cleaners and do a good job of keeping them clean and fresh. (Be sure to use distilled water when using enzymatic cleaners, as the enzymes can mix with minerals in the water and discolor the carpet.)
Finally, whatever choices you make, don't buy something simply based on its obvious cost or its ease of upkeep. The hidden price of the stain-resistant carpet is very high, from the pollution generated by its manufacture to the health toll it might take on you or your children. Research for yourself how the materials you use in your home are made, and by what means the desirable features of those materials are obtained.