I was led to believe that carpets were the modern equivalent of nirvana. Walking on silken petals cushioning my bare feet from the slightest impact. Making a room feel warm and cozy and protected. When I grew up, walking on linoleum and hardwood and wearing shoes in the house, everything seemed cold and stark. I loved the thought of thick deep carpeting. Even now I love sitting on carpeted floors with lots of pillows. So, of course, when I got my first home, in went the wall-to wall-carpeting in a beautiful (but highly inappropriate) and stain-attracting shade of blue!
Learning to Live With & Without Carpets
This week I’m going to share with you the important facts about what lies on and under your carpets and why you should consider alternatives. There’s a middle ground that you can achieve if you have carpeting, like I do now.
If You Can’t Avoid Carpets
But, first, it’s just a fact of life, that we are not all able to avoid carpets. At least not right now. For example, I live in a rental duplex in Maui, complete with wall-to-wall carpeting. Carpets are very common in apartment buildings, schools and multi-floor buildings. In fact, they may be mandated in your rental agreement. Carpets muffle the sound of footsteps, which is usually appreciated in multi-dwelling buildings. So for those of us who can’t avoid carpets I’m also going to show you how to reduce the health issues that come with them.
The Problem with Carpets Themselves
Most, if not all, carpets are made with a long list of toxic chemicals. As with many things – the cheaper the carpet, the more dangerous the chemicals. All chemicals can become gaseous when exposed to certain temperatures. Even the friction created by walking on carpets and the heat of bare feet can cause fumes to be released. When we moved into our present home, it was brand new with brand new carpeting. And all the windows had been closed for months in the 80° temperature. Even though we opened all the windows to let the trade winds blow through, my head was spinning for days. But all I could do was air it out. I’ll talk about other ways to “gas off” your carpets later when airing out isn’t enough.
While you don’t eat off your carpet – you can’t help but breathe the fumes it releases. In addition, touching your carpet (or letting your children play on it) will also release even more fumes. You can inhale those fumes or absorb the chemicals through bare feet (or bare bodies in the case of children). So if you are going to lay down carpets you really don’t want to try saving a few dollars on a cheaper brand.
Stick to carpets that meet The Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus Certification for indoor air quality. That way you know you’re being exposed to the least amount of chemicals possible. Also, when you first purchase your carpet, see if you can air it out before having the workmen come to lay it. Possibly just unrolling it in a spare bedroom with the windows open and fans on would be enough.
Carpets, Mold, Bacteria and Allergens
Besides carpets being made of toxic chemicals, they also seem to attract any other chemicals they come in contact with. You may be particular about chemicals and avoid toxic cleaning fluids. But if you live in a home that comes with a carpet, the former residents most likely used all sorts of toxic chemicals to keep their home “clean.”
Everything from hair products to cigarette smoke floats downward and settles in the carpet. I had one particularly bad experience in a rental apartment on City Island in New York. The bedroom was carpeted. It had an odor that irritated my sinuses and made me think I had a permanent cold. The landlady finally admitted that the former tenant had an incontinent dog! Not only did I have to remove the carpet but I had to have the floors sanded to remove the stains. You could smell urea as the stains turned into fumes.
You don’t have to have dogs, cats, or smokers to have problems with toxic carpet build up. Mold,bacteria and other allergens like pollen, which float freely through the air, find their way into the fibers of carpets and stay there waiting for other friends to come by and take up residence. Unlike floors or tiles, when mold or pollen lands on a carpet you can’t wash them away. They have an adherent consistency that makes them just spread when mixed with water. Only through the sucking action of a vacuum can allergens be dislodged. And, no matter how powerful your vacuum is, it just doesn’t compare with what a mop can easily do on a hardwood floor.
If you’ve avoided the carpet trap, ideally you should only be using cotton rugs in your home, and they shouldn’t be too big. You want them to fit into the washing machine. I recommend you just use plain water or add castile soap. You can always bring your rugs to a commercial laundromat or a professional cleaner once a month if you want to use larger rugs. Just make sure that chemical cleaning products are not used to clean the rug. There are environmentally-friendly cleaners that only feature water and simple alkaline soaps.
Everyday Germs Are Good
Just because carpets tend to gather germs, bacteria, and mold and it’s impossible to keep them 100% clean, I don’t want you to freak out. Even if your kids like to play on them. As I mentioned above, science is proving more and more that exposure to everyday dirt and germs can actually help support immune health. The key is to keep your carpets as clean as possible (as I’ll show next). Since they gather germs and dirt so well they simply need more attention than flooring does. You don’t want them to get so full of mold, bacteria and other germs that they become too much of a strain on the immune system.
Keeping Carpets Clean
One of the simplest and best ways to avoid a build up of mold, bacteria, pollen, dirt and other nasties is to keep your carpets super clean. If you’re going to live with carpets you should invest in a strong vacuum cleaning that doesn’t just shoot the dust back out the other end. Depending on how much traffic your carpets get (and whether you have pets or not) you should at the very least be vacuuming them once a week.
The most important point is to avoid getting your carpets very dirty in the first place. Do not let anybody wear outdoor shoes on your carpets. Especially maintenance workers like plumbers, furnace repair, carpenters etc. They are notorious for not removing their footwear, while they’ve often had their feet in some of the dirtiest of places. And now they want to track that dirt into your home, lodging who-knows-what into your carpet. Before even agreeing to having a work person in your home, clarify over the phone that they will either remove their footwear or wear some type of indoor covering.
Robotic Vacuum Cleaning
Personally, I love my Roomba® Robot Vacuum Cleaners. And, yes, they actually work. Because it doesn’t require you to physically push it around, you can give it the time to do an extremely thorough job as often as you want. It can even work on Sundays since it doesn’t have a union. I have four carpeted rooms, so I rotate the dear thing through the house so that every few days it’s doing its thing. Roomba uses some fairly impressive brushing and dirt detecting technology to get the job done. My robot even has detectors that keep it from falling down the stairs. They are a bit pricey – for a large home you’d need one of the $300-$400 units. At any rate, it’s a great way to keep your carpets from collecting too much dirt and germs before it falls deeper into the carpet.
In addition to weekly vacuuming you should give the carpets a more thorough cleaning with a system (e.g. a wet vacuum, steam cleaner) that specializes in the removal of 98% dirt, mold and allergens. Just make sure that an environmentally safe carpet shampoo is used and that the carpets are guaranteed to be completely dry within 24 hours. Otherwise the retained moisture will be the perfect condition for growing more mold and attracting more dirt than you had before it was vacuumed.
Now, when something that is nasty and difficult to clean is spilt on your carpet – like food, drink, feces, vomit – I still don’t recommend you use any of the strong cleaners. These include chemicals that will only be lodged in your carpet – making them even more toxic. At the same time you want to get the offending substances out of your carpet. Obviously food left in your carpet will provide the ideal feeding group for mold and bacteria. So stick to natural cleaning products and vacuum thoroughly. Remove as much of the substance manually. Then place a large amount of baking soda over the area for 24 hours to help absorb and dry the spill so that a good vacuuming can pull it up. If you use a rug cleaning shampoo, purchase a product that is environmentally safe.
1. Keep a small jar of diluted (safe) rug cleaning shampoo handy for small stains that seem to appear out of nowhere. Usually it’s just spilt water that has been walked over with dirty feet. Using an old toothbrush, dip your brush in the jar of liquid several times and scrub it into the stain for about a minute. Then rub the area dry with an old cotton cloth. You will be amazed at how easily the stain disappears.
2. When you are ready to clean your carpets, rent a good carpet cleaner. Then clean your carpet with hot water and a safe rug shampoo. You will know by the color of the water that is sucked back how dirty your carpet is and if you need to go over it again.
3. If you have smells and odors you are trying to abate, or you have a new carpet and airing out isn’t enough, you can use absorbing products like baking soda or zeolite powder. Spread them around the offending area, leave overnight and vacuum the next day.
Make It Happen
This is a fairly straightforward strategy. Recognize if you have a problem with your carpets and do something about it.
1. Assess what you have under your feet, at home, at work or school to see if it’s helping or hurting your health.
2. If you have carpets, start vacuuming more frequently and shampooing every six months. It’s something that you know you should do and this strategy is just giving you a nudge in the right direction.
3. Clean up small spills and stains immediately, otherwise they will only get worse.
4. Take note if you sniff and blow your nose less. I’m sure you will because you’ve just taken a considerable load off your nasal passages by improving your indoor air quality.