It’s exciting to unravel a new rug, but if this comes with a ‘new carpet smell’, chances are that the air in your house is set to get a little less healthy. That’s because this smell is caused by the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which are classed as carcinogens. For more, see the CDC’s page on VOCs and how they hurt indoor air quality.
VOCs aren’t the only things you need to watch out for in a new rug, however. This seemingly innocuous object can be both bad for your health and for the environment, even if it does really tie the room together.
This is why it’s important to purchase an eco-friendly, non-toxic rug.
VOCs in rugs
VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are emitted as a breathable gas from rugs, carpets, and other common household furnishings and products. So much so that, according to the EPA, concentrations of VOCs inside a house can be ten-fold higher than outdoors.
VOCs can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness, nasal irritation, allergic reactions, and are linked to a host of more serious health issues. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some VOC’s are greenhouse gases, meaning that they contribute to climate change (which has its own negative effects on health, such as through increasingly intense storms and desertification).
VOCs are commonly found in rugs because these textiles are treated with stain and water repellents, antimicrobial treatments (in bath rugs, for instance), and anti-static treatments, as well as adhesives, artificial dyes, and flame retardants. In general, if a rug is marketed as stain resistant, it has probably been treated with toxic chemicals or is made with synthetic, closed fiber materials that cause environmental pollution and health problems of their own.
Stain resistant rugs
If you have kids or non-human animals in the house, a stain resistant rug might sound especially appealing, given the potential for messes. However, kids, dogs, and cats are more likely than the average adult to spend time in close contact with a rug, meaning they’re at increased risk of exposure to any toxic chemicals. Once you start looking at the materials and methods used to manufacture rugs for the nursery or playroom, it’s quite shocking to think of the chemicals to which most infants are exposed early in life when developing brains and bodies are especially vulnerable to their effects.
Stain resistant rugs have typically been treated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which according to the Environmental Working Group, are associated with a number of health issues, some of which can be serious.
Flame retardants and dyes in rugs
Rugs may also be treated with flame retardant chemicals that are toxic. Rugs made with nylon and polypropylene are almost always treated with fire retardants because they are essentially flammable petroleum products. For a good primer on the potential problems with human exposure to flame retardants, see this excellent write up from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Conversely, wool is naturally flame retardant, meaning that it does not need to be treated with these harsh chemicals.
Wool is also quite resistant to staining, so much so that many companies feel compelled to use harsh chemicals on wool to make it absorb dyes, turning a natural material into a toxic environmental hazard.
Companies such as Earth Weave have invested in creating innovative natural ways to color wool without relying on problematic chemicals, which is why I’m a big fan of their products and include them in my round up of companies to consider for responsible rugs. We have done a number of Earth Weave carpet reviews, such as the Earth Weave Dolomite Collection, the Earth Weave Pyrenees Collection, and the Earth Weave McKinley Collection.
Watch out for rug backings
Even if the top of your rug is ‘natural’, the backing or padding is likely to be made of some form of plastic or synthetic latex (a suspected carcinogen that can contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates) or vinyl, urethane, 4-phenylcylclohexene, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), so don’t be fooled by clever marketing. For more on the dangers of PVC, the State of New Jersey Department of Human Resources has published a comprehensive review.
Use a rug pad produced with natural latex, jute, or wool, or opt for a double-sided rug or one that doesn’t need a pad.
What else to watch out for
It’s fairly easy to spot a rug made entirely with PVC or some other obviously troublesome material, but what about rugs made with more natural looking materials? Rugs made with natural fibers may still contain some harmful chemicals, including dyes, stain repellents, flame retardants, and anti-moth treatments.
Conventionally grown cotton is also horribly destructive to the environment and is liable to be riddled with pesticides and other chemicals.
Some of the mot troublesome chemicals found in rugs or involved in their production include:
As such, you’ll want to make sure to look for rugs that have been certified free from these chemicals.
Or, barring that, rugs which carry green certifications showing they have at least been tested and found to be low-VOC and made with organic natural fibers.
Synthetic rugs contribute to global warming
Synthetic and conventional rugs can have serious adverse effects not just on our health but also on the planet. The energy footprint, water use, and environmental pollution attributable to conventional synthetic or cotton rugs is staggering. What’s more, many of these items simply end up in landfill when styles change, where they off-gas, leach chemicals, and can take decades or longer to degrade.
Natural fibers grown organically and/or sustainably, that haven’t been treated with toxic chemicals, are better for people and the planet. Rugs are also a better option than carpet in many ways, given that fewer resources go into making them and, once you’re ready to let a natural fiber rug go, it’s much easier to repurpose or recycle. If a rug does end up in landfill a natural, non-toxic rug will break down much faster and without leaching toxins into the air, water, or soil compared to a synthetic rug or rug treated with toxic chemicals.