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Britons could be healthier if they'd give up fitted carpets, says a leading allergy specialist, after release today (Tuesday 11th July) of a report on the links between carpets and asthma and allergies. The new report, “Allergic Diseases and the Indoor Environment,” by Dr. Jill Warner, Senior Lecturer in Allergy and Immunology at the University of Southampton, for the first time highlights fitted carpets as playing a major role in the alarming rise of asthma and allergies.

Today - at the launch of the Healthy Flooring Network (HFN), a new alliance of organisations and individuals concerned about asthma and allergy which commissioned the report - Dr. Warner called for a rethink on the British love of fitted carpets. “The presence of carpets in the home can dramatically increase the levels of mite allergen. It's time for families to change the habits of a lifetime and consider alternative forms of flooring, ”says Dr. Warner.

This is the first time carpets have been named a prime culprit in allergic diseases. The report reveals that Britain, with the highest number of carpets in our homes (98% of households compared with 16% in France and 2% in Italy), is also the worst in the world for its record of asthma and allergies.

One in five children now suffer asthma in the UK. Says Dr. Warner, “Infants are the most vulnerable. Early exposure to allergens from pets and dust mites can sensitise them, making them more susceptible to asthma and allergies in later life. If we are to reduce the extremely high prevalence of allergic disease, and improve the quality of life of sufferers, we must reduce allergens in the home.”

It's a position backed by The Women's Environmental Network, Action Against Allergy, and the National Eczema Society, first to join the Healthy Flooring Network. HFN will work to raise awareness of the hidden health risks in carpets and vinyl floors. Today the network released a statement of concern and called on other organisations to join them.* “There is more childhood asthma in Britain than anywhere else in the world; there are also more fitted carpets,” said Helen Lynn, Health Co-ordinator of The Women's Environmental Network. “This report shows that getting rid of carpets could radically reduce the amount of allergens in our homes. Where small children are concerned this simple act could save them from a lifetime's suffering with allergies and breathlessness.”

Long overlooked in the battle against allergy, carpets, says the report, are actually the biggest reservoir for allergy-causing dust mite and pet allergens in the home. Previously bedding has been the focus of action to contain dust mite allergens but Dr. Warner shows that, by total amount, carpets contain much larger quantities of living mites and their allergens. Dust mites and their droppings have not only been linked to asthma but to other allergies including atopic dermatitis, seasonal conjunctivitis, and perennial rhinitis.

Up to 100,000 mites can live in one square metre of carpet, and their droppings build up steadily as the carpet gets older. Meanwhile pet allergens - the second most important cause of domestic allergy - stick to carpets and other soft furnishings, even when there is no animal in the house. They are easily spread from house to house on the clothes of visiting cat and dog owners.

Yet no amount of cleaning can completely rid the carpet of these dangerous allergens. The report reviewed comprehensive testing on a range of cleaning methods including steam, vacuuming, and the use of chemicals and detergents. Vacuuming successfully reduced levels of pet allergens in the carpets but mite allergens were more difficult to budge. None of the cleaning methods could reduce allergen levels in carpets to a point which might alleviate asthmatic symptoms. “Overall, these studies of mite allergen reduction in carpets are very disappointing,“ says the report. “The best results were obtained in the laboratory with little translation into effectiveness in the domestic environment.”

Only the removal of carpets was able to cut allergen loads to 10%, a level which could reduce asthma symptoms as well as cutting the risk of developing sensitivity. One report showed that removing fitted carpets reduced the risk of asthma and allergies by up to 14 times.

Already up to a third of the UK population suffers some form of allergy including asthma, eczema and hay fever and it continues to rise. Reducing “the allergen load” in indoor environments has become imperative. Says the report “Exposure to domestic allergens is strongly associated with increased risk of allergic disease. Epidemiological studies suggest that a 2-fold reduction of allergen exposure at a community level would significantly reduce rates of sensitisation in early childhood, halve the risk of asthma development in sensitised children, and similarly reduce asthma severity.”

Today, the Healthy Flooring Network recommended avoiding fitted carpets and switching instead to healthier alternatives including wood, linoleum and laminate floors, many of which are currently very fashionable. When cleaning these hard floors it would still be necessary to use a high efficiency vacuum cleaner.

PVC, or vinyl flooring, however is not an option. During its campaign HFN will also highlight concerns about vinyl floors, which are often used to replace fitted carpets. Hundreds of cities and communities throughout Europe, the USA and Japan are restricting the use of PVC in buildings because of environmental and health concerns. One Nordic study linked exposure to the chemicals used to soften PVC to inflammation of the airways and increased risk of asthma.

Says Pat Schooling of Action Against Allergy, “Fitted carpets dramatically increase mite allergens in the home, but there are plenty of alternatives which will help make the home a healthier environment for those at risk of illness triggered by inhaled allergens. Even this is not the complete answer, but it is a practical start.”

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