What You Didn’t Know About Your Floors: The Surprising Truth Behind Carpets and Hardwoods

By Kealia Reynolds

Hardwoods are often considered a safer and cleaner option for your health, but they may not be as safe as you think. Both hardwoods and carpet emit harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause throat irritation, fatigue, headaches, nausea, loss of coordination, and more severe issues like central nervous system damage or cancer. People with respiratory problems, young children, the elderly, and those with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to irritation and illness from VOCs.

So, which type of flooring is the safest and healthiest option for you and your family? We reviewed the health implications of carpets and hardwoods and talked to a few allergy experts about which flooring type is better for your health.

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Health implications of carpet

1. Carpet harbors dust, debris, and other pollutants

Carpet traps pollutants like dust mites, allergens, mold spores, pesticides, dust, and dirt in its fibers. According to Neeta Ogden, MD, a spokesperson for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), “Carpets are terrible for allergy sufferers because they cannot be sufficiently cleaned and can harbor many allergens from dust mites and animal dander to pollen and mold.”

According to Morgan Statt, health and safety investigator at ConsumerSafety.org, although more allergens exist on surfaces than in the air, gravity pulls down any airborne substances and allows them to settle in carpet fibers. “Any movement like sitting on the carpet or walking across its surface can disturb these allergens and send them airborne again, potentially triggering allergy-related symptoms. This can be especially tough to deal with if you have a sensitive immune system or suffer from severe allergies.”

According to Melissa Rappaport Schifman, editor and sustainability thought leader at Rise, the leading online authority in sustainable home improvement, “Carpet can actually increase the amount of dust in the air, as the tiny fiber particles can wear away from use and float into the air.” When these tiny particles are released into the air, not only are allergy sufferers made uncomfortable, the overall indoor air quality decreases.

To control the amount of allergens trapped in your carpet, try to vacuum one to two times per week. “Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter that can effectively trap fine particles like pollen and dust mite remnants,” says Statt. “If you’re particularly sensitive to allergies, wear a mask while cleaning to prevent any symptom flare-ups.” Remember: Even though vacuuming can remove pollutants, it can also disturb settled pollutants and fling them back into the air.

In addition to vacuuming, The American Lung Association recommends deep cleaning carpets once a year with dry steam cleaning to keep pollutant levels at a minimum. Unlike traditional steam cleaning, dry steam cleaning works only on steam, so no chemical solutions are ever needed (allergens, dirt, grime, and stains can be removed without any traces of water being left behind).

According to the AAFA, hardwood floors are ideal for those with allergies and asthma because unlike carpet, wood floors are hypoallergenic.

2. Carpet can emit harmful VOCs

Carpet and carpet padding may contain formaldehyde glues (formaldehyde is a major carcinogen and indoor air pollutant) that give off gaseous VOCs, which can cause headaches and breathing problems. Carpet is typically made from petroleum and synthetic fibers, and the carpet manufacturing process uses solvents, polymers, and sealers that can leave harsh residues in the carpet. The residues from these products can leach into the air for years after installation.

According to the American Lung Association, homeowners should choose a carpet that releases fewer VOC emissions. Schifman recommends looking for the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus logo—this logo signifies that the carpet has been tested and certified by an independent laboratory and has met stringent criteria for low emissions. Additionally, the carpet should be aired out in a well-ventilated area (like a dry warehouse) for 72 hours before installation, if possible. If this isn’t plausible, stay out of your home for at least 48 hours while the carpet is being installed.

3. Carpet absorbs liquid and can foster mildew or mold growth

Carpet fibers absorb messes and spills, making it more difficult to clean and more susceptible to mildew and mold growth. If you don’t treat mildew or mold immediately, you could experience a slew of health issues including coughing and wheezing, nausea, throat irritation, or skin irritation. To prevent mildew or mold from forming, keep kitchens, bathrooms, and entryways free of carpet (these spaces are prone to moisture).

Additionally, make sure carpets are properly dried after every steam cleaning to reduce mildew growth—this can be done by leaving your ceiling fans on or setting up fans to blow across the floor. Expect your carpets to dry in six to 12 hours. Again, we recommend dry steam cleaning to prevent excess water from seeping into your carpets and encouraging mold.

Read more: In-depth review of First American Home Warranty.

Health implications of hardwood

1. Some hardwood finishes emit harmful VOCs

Water- and oil-based polyurethane finishes are typically used in the manufacturing of wood flooring. During the drying and curing process, the polyurethane finish can release potentially harmful chemicals into the air via evaporation—a process known as off-gassing. Depending on the type of finish applied, the temperature and humidity conditions in which it was applied, and the ventilation of the room where it was applied, off-gassing can continue for days, even months, after the floors are installed in your home.

Choose low-VOC wood stains and sealants or recycled wood with a water-based, Green Seal 11-certified finish to reduce off-gassing. We also recommend leaving your house for at least 48 hours to allow the finish to cure and the odor to disperse. To speed up the drying and curing process and to reduce the off-gassing period, ensure the room where the hardwoods are being installed remains well-ventilated by setting up fans to blow across the floor. We also recommend turning up the heat in the room to accelerate drying.

Note: Some glues used to install hardwoods can also emit harmful VOCs. If you use glue-down installation, choose low-VOC glue that is GREENGUARD Gold certified. To avoid harmful glues altogether, we recommend installing hardwoods with nail-down or interlocking installation.

2. Some hardwoods contain formaldehyde-based glue

Composite wood flooring like engineered hardwood, bamboo, and laminate are made by fusing wood layers together with glues and resins. The glue used to fuse the wood is often made with formaldehyde. Formaldehyde-based glues are typically classified into two categories: urea or phenol. Urea-formaldehyde glues are especially troublesome because they release formaldehyde throughout the life of the wood. Phenol-formaldehyde glues emit 90% less formaldehyde.

If you do decide to buy composite wood flooring, look for products labeled with one of the following standards:

  • NAF—This is the highest standard for formaldehyde emissions and means the product has no added formaldehyde.
  • ULEF—This means the product’s glues and resins contain formaldehyde, but the product emits formaldehyde at ultra-low levels.
  • NAUF—This standard, created by the US Green Building Council, indicates that the product doesn’t use urea formaldehyde, but uses phenol-based glues instead.

3. Chemicals in hardwood could cause allergic reactions

During hardwood installation and finishing, three products are typically used: adhesives, sealers, and varnishes. Adhesives are used to apply your wood flooring to concrete or other types of sub-floor, sealers are applied to the sanded wood surface, and varnishes are applied as a top coat once the sealer has dried.

If you come into direct contact with one of these products, you could experience dermatitis or skin sensitization. Sufficient absorption of these products through the skin or by inhalation could lead to nausea, dizziness, abdominal pain, throat inflammation, skin burns, or breathing difficulties.

Our pick

For an allergy-friendly, mold-resistant, easy-to-maintain flooring, we recommend hardwoods as the most viable option. When it comes down to it, we believe hardwoods are an overall better flooring choice, especially when it comes to air quality. Both the LEED for Homes rating system and the American Lung Association recommend choosing hard surface flooring over carpeting in your home because it doesn’t absorb allergens and other types of dirt and debris like carpet does. According to Ogden, “Because there are no fibers, allergens, dust mites, mold, and dander can’t burrow into the floors.” And even if dust and other pollutants begin to collect on hardwoods, they’re much easier to remove with a dry mopping every few weeks.

Hardwood also affords more options for non-toxic, eco-friendly flooring than carpet does. Carpets are predominantly constructed out of synthetic materials for added durability and use a chemical treatment during the manufacturing process that can hurt the environment. Though there are some eco-friendly advances in carpet production that remove harmful chemicals and VOCs, these products are usually much more expensive.

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