The choice of flooring materials for both domestic
and commercial uses can have a major impact on both the health of people using them and
the wider environment. Wall to wall carpets harbour dust which leads to a build up of dust
mite allergen, an important trigger for asthma and other allergies. Dust also absorbs
toxic pollutants from the indoor and outdoor environments. Smooth floorings are the
alternative which is often advocated to prevent the build up of dust and dust mites.
The cheapest smooth floorings are made of PVC, also known as vinyl, which is a major
source of toxic substances in the environment, some of which are persistent organic
pollutants. A variety of healthy alternatives are available, including wooden floors,
linoleum, cork and laminate floors, which can be combined with loose rugs for comfort.
Allergy, Asthma and the problem of fitted carpets Allergic diseases such as asthma and
eczema have become increasingly prevalent over the last three decades. According to the
Wolrd Health Organisation (1), the trends in allergic diseas are rising, with up to
1 in 3 of Europe's children already allergic and 1 in 10 wheezing. Britain has 3.4
million people with asthma; more than any other country in Europe (2).
Indoor air pollution is thought to be a significant cause or trigger of allergies,
aggravated by the trend for insulated houses, soft furnishings (including fitted carpets),
pets, and the chemicals present in many modern products. The dust mite is widely
acknowledged to be a major problem. About 80% of children suffering from asthma in the UK
are sensitive to the droppings of the house dust mite. The areas of the home that harbour
the most house dust mites are bedding and fitted carpets. Fitted carpets, once in place,
are harder to address than bedding. Dust mites are notoriously difficult to get rid of
once they build up in the home; vacuuming, chemical sprays to killl the dust mites and air
filtering systems have limited effectiveness.
The Carpet Tradition
British people have a particular attachment to fitted carpets. They represent comfort and
modern living for many people and are considered a selling point by Estate Agents. The
proportion of houses with fitted carpets everywhere else in the world is much lower, even
in countries with similar climates (UK homes 98%, France 16%). The average UK consumer is
said to replace his carpet once every six years (3). UK consumers buy more carpet on an
annual per capita basis than any other consumers in Europe; 3.9 sq metres.
Toxic substances in fitted carpets and PVC
Many of the substances used in PVC and in some carpets have been targetted for phase out
at international conventions, for example the Oslo and Paris
Convention's (OSPAR) 'generational goal' to phase out hazardous substances by 2020. PVC
flooring contains phthalates, chlorinated paraffins and possibly lead or tin compounds as
stabilisers. Carpets are likely to contain brominated fire retardants and chlorinated
paraffins, among other chemicals. When PVC (or carpets containing chlorinated substances)
is incinerated dioxins & furans are created. In addition to chemicals deliberately
added to carpets, fitted carpets act a as reservoir for dust and can trap toxic pollutants
from inside and outside the home.
PVC Flooring and Allergies
The most obvious low budget replacement for fitted carpets is PVC, or vinyl, flooring. As
well as the environmental problems associated with PVC, there is growing evidence that
phthalates in soft PVC can contribute to allergic diseases, and induce inflammation of the
airways. There are concerns that consumers who reject fitted carpets because of dust and
dust mites would replace them with PVC flooring, which as well as impacting the
environment, would not improve the situation for allergy sufferers. (4)(5)
Much of the existing advice for allergy sufferers focusses on bedding and air pollution,
yet the floors we choose can also have a major impact on allergy sufferers. The two most
popular choices for flooring in the UK, fitted carpets and vinyl, have the most potential
to damage our health. For the first time, leading allergy, health and environmental groups
have come together to form a network concerned about floors.
(1) Roberto Bertollini MD, MPH, Director, Rome Division, European Centre for
Environment and Health, World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe, European
(2) National Asthma Campaign, UK Worst for Asthma, October 1997
(3) Carpet and Floorcovering Review June 1999 pg 14
(4) The Contracting Parties to the Oslo and Paris Conventions are Belgium, Denmark, the
European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway,
Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.
(5) Oie, Hersoug and Madsen, Residential Exposure to Plasticisers and Its Possible Role
int he Pathogenesis of Asthma, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 105, Number 9,
(6) Jouni, Jaakkola, Oie et.al. Interior Surface Materials in the Home and the Development
of Bronchial Obstruction in Young Children in Oslo, Norway. Amercian Journal of Public
Health, February 1999, Vol 89.No.2.
See Statement to read the Healthy Flooring Network´s Statement of Concern,
and see the list of signatories.