Concerns about chemicals in recycled carpet padding

Next up: the recycled foam padding installed under wall-to-wall carpeting.

According to the Carpet Cushion Council, an industry group, an estimated 12.3 billion pounds of recycled foam padding is in homes and offices in the United States, and around a billion pounds more is produced in this country each year.

Scientists with the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), a nongovernmental group dedicated to eliminating persistent organic pollutants (or POPs) and other toxic chemicals, recently tested recycled foam padding from six countries where it is used, and concluded that 23 of 26 samples from the United States, Canada and Hungary contained one or more flame retardants considered toxic. (Samples from the other three countries — Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Thailand — where wall-to-wall carpeting is less common, did not contain the flame retardants.

Six other countries — Albania, Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Russia and Senegal — were investigated but not included in the report, because recycled padding wasn’t found there.)

According to the Carpet Cushion Council, an industry group, an estimated 12.3 billion pounds of recycled foam padding is in homes and offices in the United States, and around a billion pounds more is produced in this country each year. We asked Joseph DiGangi, a biochemist and molecular biologist and the lead author of the IPEN report, whether this figure and his findings are a cause for anxiety.

Why did you decide to test carpet padding?

Two years ago, the global scientific community decided that two brominated flame retardants were so harmful and such dangerous substances that they needed to be eliminated globally. Their short names are pentaBDE and octaBDE. So we added these substances to the Stockholm Convention.

Why are POPs dangerous?

You can think of them as among the world’s worst chemicals: substances which cannot be managed because they travel long distances and build up in the food chain, so even if you live in a place where there is no production, you are still exposed to them in your food and other sources. And they are toxic.

But back to carpet padding: Why test it?

When the global community decided to prohibit these two flame retardants, they created an exemption, a loophole, permitting the recycling of products that contain these substances. And carpet padding was one of those products.

But you tested only 26 samples from the US, Canada and Hungary, which does not sound like a lot. It’s a survey, not a representative sample. It’s a decent size in that it provides a clue as to whether this is something you can expect to find or not. It provides a good introduction into whether or not you have a problem.

The Carpet Cushion Council Web site acknowledges that recycled foam contains pentaBDE in small but legal amounts. So why bother testing? We wanted to prove to ourselves and others that penta and octaBDE specifically were actually present in the foam, given that they were included in the treaty for global elimination.

But without flame retardants, wouldn’t there be more fires?

Not necessarily. The flame retardants only provide just a brief delay before a fire actually begins. And the standard does not require other materials that are also flammable — the upholstery on your couch, the carpet fibre themselves — to be treated. So ultimately, the overall benefit to including chemical flame retardants has been questioned by scientists.

How exactly are these chemicals harmful?

They cause harm to the reproductive system and the development of the brain, probably through effects on thyroid hormones. A recent study from Columbia University in New York tracked infants exposed to these substances from before they were born and found a relationship between chemical levels and diminished IQ.

Who is most at risk?

The most vulnerable population is infants and children, mostly because they spend so much time on the floor. These substances are not attached to anything, so they are released into the dust. The highest levels of dust will be on the floor.

So should people rip out their carpeting?

That’s a fair question with a dissatisfying answer. One option might be to keep the home as dust-free as possible; another might be to put some sort of additional rug on top of the carpet to act a physical barrier. But really, these things are half measures. What’s really needed is an alternative that does not contain these substances.

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