Monday, March 12, 2018

What's That Smelly (and Toxic) New Rug Smell and How to Avoid It

Kids love playing on the floor- giving them
 direct contact to your rugs and any chemical
 being given off by them

Such a common scenario: Excited parents decorating their baby's nursery or child's bedroom or playroom pick out the perfect accent rug that helps the entire room come together...... only to realized when they get home that a very strong odor is suddenly present. A REALLY. STRONG. ODOR. As I have said a couple of times on this blog, it is always smart to follow your nose when it comes to chemicals... if it smells strong, it usually involves a chemical... and with carpets and rugs this is usually the case.

As a parent, you might have worried about the chemicals in the mattress your kids are sleeping on, or about the chemicals in the food they eat and/or the chemicals in the toys they play with and/or place in their mouths. Equally important, and sometimes overlooked, are the chemicals in the carpets and rugs we choose for our homes- especially since carpeting accounts for 51% of the total U.S. flooring market.

Given the amount of time small children spend on or around carpets and their vulnerability to chemical exposure – small children are more susceptible to 

harmful chemicals for many reasons including: they breathe more air, consume more food, and drink more water than adults do, in proportion to their weight. Also their detox mechanisms are not as developed as an adults-making sure your home carpets are as non-toxic as possible is important too.


A new study, just published in the EU last week,  reveals just how toxic carpets today are and how the chemicals currently in carpets can affect consumers’ and workers’ health- especially young children and pregnant women. 

 The study identified over 59 hazardous substances in carpets sold in the European Union. Among the chemicals found:

  • phthalates: used to make plastics more flexible and in fragrance chemicals, phthalates are also commonly used in the backing materials of carpets. 6 types of phthalates were found in carpets. Four, (DEHP, DBP, and BBP) are classified as being toxic to reproduction, acutely toxic to aquatic life, bioaccumulative, and toxic to human health. The other three (DINP, DIDP, and DNOPs ) are suspected of being toxic to reproduction, potential carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and developmental toxicants.
  • Nonylphenols (NPs) and NonylphenolEthoxylates (NPEOs): These are surfactants that have been phased out of cleaning products in the EU due to their hazard profiles, but are still being used as adhesives in carpet backing. These chemicals are "endocrine disruptors and to cause feminisation of male fish. "
  • Antimicrobials: antimicrobial chemicals are often used on carpets to protect against dust mites, moulds, bacteria, fungi and are used in the treatment of carpet fibres and backings. The hazards for biocides used in carpets range from mild eye and skin irritants to skin sensitizers to reproductive toxicants
  • Flame Retardants: These chemicals are heavily used in carpet material such as plastic materials and polyurethane foam (carpet padding). The problem with flame retardant chemicals is that they dont 'stick' to whatever they are sprayed on and actually migrate away easily- exposing you and your family to more of them. Some have been linked to acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) - a common childhood cancer. The study indicated that house dust was a major contributor and risk factor to PBDE exposure
  • Stain Repellents: PFAS are used as stain repellent finishes for many textiles, including carpets. They are considered in the EU as suspected carcinogens, toxic to reproduction, and may cause developmental disorders as these substances persist in the tissues of organism. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control has identified carpets and rugs as the largest potential sources of significant and widespread PFAS exposures, especially for children
  • Heavy metals: Some are neurotoxins, impair human fertility and/or cause harm to unborn children. Cadmium and its compounds are ‘highly toxic and exposure to this metal is known to cause cancer and targets the body's cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems’. Children, with the amount of time they spend crawling on, laying on, playing on and sitting on rugs and carpets tend to absorb even more of these toxic chemicals through skin contact, inhalation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ingestion of carpet (micro)fibers through their hand-to-mouth behavior.

These toxic chemicals migrate from carpets through the typical use and abrasion of carpets throughout the lifetime of the carpet. Many of them then adhere to dust – Humans and animals are thus exposed to the chemicals via inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact.


These chemicals, on their own, are problematic for everyone. Cumulative this cocktail could potentially be even more harmful especially for pregnant women, babies and small children who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of exposure to chemicals.


LEt's (quickly) understand the anatomy of a carpet.
 carpet can be made of many different materials and in many different methods:

  • A. Needle-punching: These are thin, hard and tight carpets commonly found if office buildings. The carpet fibres are bonded with materials such as latex.
  • B.  Tufted. According to the EPA “over 90 percent of commercial carpet is tufted”. A hand tufted rug it is a rug created by pushing wool or acrylic yarn through a primary backing , creating a ‘tufts’ . The ‘tufts’ are then glued and held in place using a latex glue. 
  • C. Hand Woven Rug: also called a hand knotted rug, these use natural fibers pulled and knotted tightly without the need for additional backing
Both needle punching and tufted carpets contain partial or full backings, typically made of polyurethane (PU), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or other latex-like or foam materials such as styrene butadiene rubber (SBR). 

Styrene-butadiene latex is the most common bonding material used in carpet backing systems. According to the EPA  exposure can result in a range of issues from “ potentially cause nervous system effects such as depression, loss of concentration, weakness, fatigue and nausea" " liver and nerve tissue damage."


1. Avoid wall to wall carpets since they mostly have to be attached with toxic adhesives 
2.  Avoid rugs that have backings attached with adhesives (hand tufted, needle punching etc). 
3. Seek out hand knotted rugs or a rug that specifies that they are non-toxic. Jute, Wool, sisal or 100% cotton are good options.
4. Avoid moth proofing (usually sprayed on wool carpets). More chemicals.
3. When you do purchase a new rug look for the CRI (Carpet and Rug Institute) Green Label Plus logo, which indicates a very low-emitting carpet (in the United States), the German government’s ecolabel Blue Angel, or the Nordic Swan eco-labels
4. If you bring a rug home and it smells... return it.
5. If you need to purchase a synthetic carpet, the least toxic carpets on the market can be found on this website: The Carpet and Rug Institute Green Label Carpets. These are "low-emitting" carpets, most made from synthetic fibers.

1. CONTACT THE MANUFACTURER. Some manufacturers, like Pottery Barn Kids, have been known to offer you a refund if you call and complain about a smell and stick firmly to your rights (they now use a non smelling adhesive in their newer carpets so newer purchases might not have this problem), other companies might not be so lenient.
2. TRY CLEANING/VENTILATING: Do not try to clean the carpet with more harsh chemicals. Try steam cleaning your carpets with plain water and opening windows or turning fans on the ventilate you room. The longer you can let your carpet off gas (ventilate) the better! Vacuum frequently with a HEPA filtered vacuum.

Some of My Favorite Non-Toxic Area Rugs


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