Lab tests expose high levels of hazardous chemicals in floors [download report]
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Britain’s two most popular floor-coverings - carpets and vinyl (PVC) – are exposing us to hazardous chemicals, says a new report from the Healthy Flooring Network (HFN) (1) and Greenpeace UK. Laboratory analysis of high street brands reveals that carpets and vinyl contain surprisingly high levels of chemicals that could escape into the indoor environment – and which, says the report are "potentially hazardous to human health and the environment".

The report, ‘Poison Underfoot’, exposes a range of chemicals including pesticides, organotins, brominated flame-retardants and phthalates, added to floorings as stabilisers, softeners, or "bug-killers" designed to keep carpets "fresh" or kill dust mites.

"People are not aware of the chemical hazards in their floors," says Helen Lynn, spokesperson for HFN and Health Co-ordinator for the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN). "Wherever there is carpet or vinyl – in homes, offices, schools - people are unwittingly exposed to chemicals they would rather avoid."

HFN sent samples of eight carpets and five vinyl floors [2] to independent laboratories to determine the type and quantities of certain hazardous chemicals in floors. Most surprising was the finding that both carpets and vinyl contained tributyltin (TBT) which is both toxic to animals and is known to have caused sex changes in marine wildlife. Carpets treated with the anti dust mite treatment Ultrafresh, contained particularly high levels of this hazardous chemical. Carpets treated with Permafresh and Dynomite, also anti-dust mite treatments, contained high levels of permethrin, a toxic pesticide, even though studies comparing treated and non-treated carpet have found this makes no difference to the numbers of dust mites.

Brominated flame-retardants were found in three of the carpet samples [2]. These chemicals are so toxic and long-lived that governments have agreed to phase them out, and list them as "Chemicals for Priority Action" [5].

Other chemicals found in the vinyl samples include phthalates used as softeners in PVC. Two of them, BBP [6] and DINP have already been banned in the EU from use in chewy children’s toys because of their potential health effects. Children are most vulnerable to phthalates in vinyl flooring as, relative to their size, they breathe more air than adults and are often breathing close to the floor. Studies show that phthalates leach into the air, and that washing the floor can transfer them to the wash-water. They can attach themselves to particles such as house dust. All five samples tested contained DINP and three contained BBP[2], the phthalate causing most concern about its toxicity.

"Given the hazardous nature of these compounds," says Greenpeace scientist Michelle Allsopp, author of the report, "the levels we found are clearly of concern. All the chemicals we looked for are toxic, yet they appeared in carpets and vinyl at substantial levels."

Today HFN called on consumers to avoid buying vinyl flooring and fitted carpets, and Greenpeace UK pledged to continue its wider fight against the production of PVC, including vinyl floors. A. ‘Guide to Healthy Flooring’ giving alternatives to both vinyl and fitted carpets including wood, lino and coir, is available from HFN [7].

Greenpeace has launched a new interactive web site to enable shoppers to buy products for the home that don’t contain persistent toxic chemicals, like phthalates and brominated flame-retardents. The web site can be found at: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk

Said Helen Lynn, of HFN, "It’s staggering that Governments have earmarked these chemicals for urgent action yet they are still being added to floors in homes, schools and the workplace and could be affecting our health. We must avoid fitted carpets and vinyl."

For more information please contact Michelle Allsopp, Greenpeace Research Laboratory 01392 263917 or Greenpeace Press Office 0207 865 8285. Telephone number for publication Healthy Flooring Network 0207 481 9004

  1. Founder members of HFN include The Women’s Environmental Network and Action Against Allergy.
  2. Carpets sampled were from: Kingsmead Carpets ("Dynomite"); Westex ("Ultrafresh"); Rawson Carpets ("Ultrafresh"); Brintons Ltd; Riding Hall Carpets; Whitestone Weavers Ltd; and B&Q carpet tiles. Levels of the Brominated flame-retardant decabromodiphenyl ether were particularly high in the B & Q carpet tile. Vinyl samples were from: Gerflor Ltd.; Armstrong; Forbo Nairn; Marley Floors; and B&Q. The vinyl samples from Gerflor, Amstrong and Forbo Nairn, contained high levels of BBP.
  3. According to the Royal Society (Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. Document 06/00 June 2000) the organotin TBT is responsible for "abundant, undisputed, and world-wide population-level effects in wildlife". These effects have been widely documented in molluscs and include penis-bearing females, population declines and even the total disappearance of mollusc species. Recently, scientists from the EU’s Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment’s (CSTEE’s) Working Group on Endocrine Disrupters referred to TBT-induced imposex as "the best example of endocrine disruption in invertebrates that is causally linked to an environmental pollutant" (Vos, J.G., Dybing, E., Greim, H.A., Ladefoged, O., Lambre, C., Tarazona, J.V., Brandt, I. & Vethaak, A.D. (2000) Health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on wildlife, with special reference to the European situation. Critical Reviews in Toxicology 30(1): 71-133)
  4. In January 2001the German Government decided to prohibit the use of organotins in everyday products, including textiles.
  5. Brominated flame retardants, along with 25 other chemicals or groups of chemicals, are included on the List of Chemicals for Priority Action of the strategy for hazardous substances agreed by the OSPAR Commission in Sintra in 1998 and updated at its June 2000 meeting held in Copenhagen. In 1998, Ministers from all OSPAR (North East Atlantic) countries agreed to "make every endeavour to move towards the target of cessation of discharges, emissions and losses of hazardous substances by the year 2020", starting from the priority list. OSPAR’s strategy places emphasis on the precautionary principle and on substitution of hazardous substances with less-hazardous and preferably non-hazardous alternatives.
  6. The phthalate BBP is highly toxic. It has been shown to have teratogenic (birth defects), reproductive and developmental effects in laboratory animals. Also to have endocrine disrupting properties in offspring of rats exposed to it during gestation. Male offspring had significant decreases in sperm count as well as other reproductive abnormalities at an exposure dose close to levels humans are exposed to every day. The text of the 4th extension of the EU emergency ban on the use of six phthalates in toys designed to be chewed by children is available at: http://www.europa.eu.int/eurlex/en/dat/2000/l_306/l_30620001207en00370037.pdf
  7. The HFN Guide to Healthy Flooring is available with a large s.a.e. from HFN, c/o The Women’s Environmental Network, PO Box 30626, London E1 1TZ. Tel: 0207 481 9004, or from http://www.healthyflooring.org
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