Dispelling Misperceptions About Carpet and Health
When it comes to the green movement, there are basically two sides to the coin: Environmental and health.
The environmental component is pretty obvious, including such things as recycling and sustainable practices and, as such, gets the majority of the press. And, in this area, carpet scores high marks across the board as the industry is widely recognized as one of the most progressive among all building products—be it residential or commercial.
But the health issue is another story altogether. In this area, there is a great deal of publicity out there but, unfortunately, when it comes to such products as carpet, much of what is said in the mainstream media is not only untrue, it is unsubstantiated—especially when it comes to its effects on people with allergies and asthma.
In fact, as Werner Braun, president of the Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI), noted, “there is not one piece of scientific data that supports the case for carpet not being a good product for people with allergies, asthma or other indoor air quality (IAQ) sensitivities. Meanwhile, there are an abundant amount of studies from around the world showing the opposite” of what most people think, proving carpet is actually a good product for promoting healthy IAQ.
And, many of these studies are done independently of the carpet industry—from both being directly involved to simply funding the research—meaning they are truly conducted by third parties. In some cases they are actually conducted by government agencies.
Yet the problem still persists. Paul Murray, vice president of sustainability for Shaw, points out, “It’s a common misconception carpet adversely impacts allergy and asthma sufferers. Research shows well-maintained carpet can reduce airborne allergens, contributing to healthier indoor air quality. This is important for everyone, but it’s particularly critical for people impacted by asthma and allergies.”
He added, “Carpet traps allergens and other particles at its base, which keeps them away from the carpet’s surface and out of the air. Research shows that allergens trapped by carpet do not return to the air, even when the carpet is disturbed by walking or other activity.”
Unfortunately, though, the misperceptions, or urban legends about carpet not being a good product when it comes to IAQ persist. And many times it starts at the doctor’s office, when the diagnosis is an allergy or asthma condition. The prescription, among other things, is to remove all the carpet from the home.
While the doctor may think he is giving the parents correct advice he is really dispensing a dose of urban legend. This faux pa inevitably puts a strain on the entire industry as retailers on the residential side are now faced with consumers who refuse to give the beautiful carpet selections a second glance because of a belief it is not a healthy product and, on the commercial side, the contractor cannot convince the parent who is the designer for a major commercial project to incorporate carpet in the specs.
The medical community is certainly a point of frustration for the industry when it comes to keeping myths alive, though a project conducted by CRI 10 years ago did help drop the misperceptions some. Prior to this campaign, which was directed at allergy and asthma doctors, almost 60% of the 300 specialists and general practitioners surveyed were recommending to patients they remove their carpet. After CRI presented them with all the relative information and data it had at the time—and much more has been done since—the number of doctors prescribing carpet removal had dropped to 42%.
Because there is still a major misperception—not just in the medical field but the public in general—Braun said the issue of allergies and asthma has been identified as the second most important issue within the carpet industry. As such, he told Floor TrendsCRI is developing a strategy to deal with the issue more effectively. “It’s a very novel approach and will be done in a cost effective manner.”
Braun explained, it will begin to be rolled out during the first quarter of 2014 so it can then be evaluated later in the year and by mid 2015 the plan is to “really start communicating” what is being done.
So what is a retailer or contractor to do when a client asks questions about the health aspects of carpet? Before the question is even asked, the salesperson should have handy the one-page talking points developed by CRI just for this occasion. In fact, within its website (carpet-rug.org), there are a host of these one-page forms in downloadable formats for various sectors—from residential to A&D to schools to healthcare and facility managers.
These are written in a clear, concise manner that allows the salesperson or rep to easily communicate in layman’s terms some of the facts. The CRI website, along with a number of others, such as carpet-health.org/aa.asp and flooringsciences.org, also have numerous scientific papers and studies that have been conducted around the world showing carpet actually provides a positive experience when it comes to IAQ.
Common Sense Approach
Before you start bombarding your client with scientific studies and other documented evidence, you may first want to try using the common sense approach.
Sometimes a bit of good old-fashioned reasoning is enough to make people see the fallacy in their thinking. For example, remind them the clothes they are wearing are made with the same materials as carpet. The fact is much of today’s carpet is made from harmless materials—polyester, nylon and olefin fibers. Then there are the natural fibers such as wool. Again, the wool used to make that luxurious, comfortable piece of carpet is the same type that is used to make that warm and comfy sweater.
In fact, when it comes to wool, Bill Storey, senior vice president of Karastan, said, “Scientific studies prove wool absorbs contaminants, including formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, and locks them into its core without re-releasing them. As such, wool improves indoor air and creates healthier working and living environments for the life of the carpet—[actually] up to 30 years.”
Many wool carpets, such as those by Karastan, he added, carry the Wool: Clean Air Certified label, which is an Indoor Environmental Quality program managed by Wools of New Zealand.
Back to using common sense, you can point out that if carpet were such a detrimental product to one’s health then you and every one of your employees would not be around to even sell it because you are exposed to more of it than the average person yet are still standing. That even goes for all your installers, or the thousands upon thousands of people who actually work in the mills. If carpet was so bad for IAQ, shouldn’t there be tons of stories about mill employees dying from being so close to it every day? That is not happening and there is not some major conspiracy to hide it.
Another bit of common sense is to point out the reason why carpet can actually improve the quality of indoor air. Thanks to something everyone is familiar with, gravity, particles such as dust, pollen, and pet and insect dander—all common allergens—fall to the floor. In the case of carpet, the fibers trap these particles and reduce their ability to continue to circulate in the air.
“In essence,” noted Mike McAllister, Beaulieu’s director of marketing, “carpet functions as a passive filter and holds dust, mold spores, pollen, pet dander and the like until it is vacuumed and cleaned.”
Remind your clients the only way for a person to get an allergic reaction or asthma attack is to breath in the allergen. In other words, people have to literally stick their faces into the carpet and breathe everything in for a period a time to be affected by any type of allergen.
In fact, a person actually has a greater chance of being affected by an allergen from their sofa, bed or drapes since their faces are not only up close, these types of textiles do not have the ability to trap material like carpet. Think of when you fling the drapes open/shut. That quick, violent movement disturbs whatever particles settled, forcing them into the air right where you are standing. The same goes for the sofa. How many times have you seen a small poof of dust kick up when someone flops down?
Another misperception about carpet involves mold. Truth is, mold grows in any moist environment where dirt and dust provide nutrients. When carpet is kept clean and dry, mold, which is a living fungus, simply cannot grow on synthetic fibers. In most cases, the mold people associate with carpet is actually from the subfloor.
Again, common sense would dictate why. When mold is present, it is usually found underneath the carpet. So, if the carpet was the reason for the mold, shouldn’t the fungus be seen on the surface fibers and not just trapped underneath? The simple fact is, it is very hard to grow mold on carpet.
Plus, anyone who has ever seen mold knows its growth is not limited to one direction—just look up at the vents in an average office.
Just the facts
While the common sense approach is probably the best way to start in trying to convince a buyer carpet is not harmful to them or their indoor environment, sometimes you will still have to prove it.
In that case, there are numerous studies that actually disprove any correlation.
The most famous of these is a 15-year Swedish study, which found no link between carpet usage and the incidence of allergy or asthma. Begun in 1975, the research tracked the product’s use through 1990 and compared it with the country’s allergy and asthma rates during this same period. During the course of the study, carpet’s market dropped precipitously—at the start it was around 40% and by the end it had fallen to 2%. The reasons for this drop are many but the main culprit was a public outcry about carpet being the source of increasing allergy and asthma attacks in the country.
But while the overall use of broadloom throughout the country shrunk to almost nothing, allergy and asthma continued to climb and, by the mid-1980s, allergic reactions began to skyrocket. By this point, the amount of carpet used each year had already dropped in half. Put simply, over the 15-year period, carpet usage in Sweden decreased tremendously while allergy reactions in the general population increased by 30%.
Adding to the Swedish study’s findings, in 2002 an 18-nation study of nearly 20,000 people found a statistical relationship between carpeted bedrooms and reduced asthma and allergy symptoms and improved breathing. A year later, a study of more than 4,600 school children in New Jersey found that having carpet in a child’s bedroom was associated with fewer missed school days and less need for asthma medication.
There is a bunch more data supporting this from studies done within the U.S. and around the world. Tremendous advances have been made in the manufacturing of carpet over the last 20-plus years making it greener and healthier than ever before.
Carpet does needs to be properly maintained for it to be the most effective. CRI is an invaluable resource in this area with its Seal of Approval program which, after using an independent testing laboratory to measure soil removal, dust containment and carpet fiber protection states the best vacuum cleaners and carpet cleaning practices.
In the end, keep in mind that many people and businesses would actually love to use carpet in their decorating but may need fact-based reassurance in light of so much misinformation out there. Don’t be reluctant to share the facts.
Carpet is truly an amazing product—and it doesn’t matter if you are talking about a base grade material or a luxurious, highly expensive piece of wool. It’s a key decorating item in just about any type of indoor setting, be it a home or commercial establishment; it’s soft, warm and cozy, and, most of all, it is one of the healthiest indoor furnishings available.