After Halina Marston placed a new carpet pad under an area rug in her Southington, Conn., home last October, she and her husband noticed a strong chemical odor.
The same day, her husband began complaining about irritation in one eye, the same in which he had had a corneal transplant years earlier.
Even though Marston aired the pad outdoors for two days, the odor remained. Concerned about potential health effects, she returned the pad to the store. She also complained to state consumer officials.
"I would like the product investigated for the sake of other people," she wrote in her request to the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. "If the product affected my husband's eye so adversely, it must be harmful to small children or pregnant women."
Marston was not alone in her concern about chemicals and other substances in carpets, pads, backings, sealants, adhesives and chemical treatments for pest and mildew control. And she was not the only one who has complained to state or federal consumer officials:
In 1988, federal workers complained about sore throats, burning lips and other problems after new carpeting was installed at Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The agency said the problems likely were caused by a variety of factors, including dust, glare, job stress and chemical emissions from carpets and a variety of other sources.
But in its general effort to improve air quality in the workplace, the agency has revised its own carpet purchasing and installation procedures. Among the new requirements is that, in choosing new carpet, officials look for low chemical odor and low chemical emission levels. The agency also requires that new carpet be aired out before installation and that the carpet be installed during non-working hours. And installers are required to use only low chemical-emitting adhesives.
The EPA episode set off discussions among representatives of the government, consumer groups and the industries that make carpets, carpet cushions and carpet adhesives. As a result, those industries have reached an agreement with the EPA under which they will test their products to identify the chemical emissions that are likely to occur and report the results to the EPA.
Manufacturers of carpets and related products acknowledge that floor coverings have the potential to irritate respiratory systems and eyes and cause allergic reactions when installed. But they say carpet owners need only provide several days of extra ventilation to the area in which the carpet is installed.
"There is no scientific evidence to indicate there are any (serious) health effects linked to carpet," said Ronald E. VanGelderen, president of the Carpet and Rug Institute of Dalton, Ga., a trade association representing the carpet industry and industry suppliers.
The industry said some of the allergic reactions that people attribute to new carpets actually may be associated with dust and other particles that become airborne when old carpeting is removed.
But some medical professionals and consumer groups say that in large quantities the chemicals found in carpets, adhesives and pads have both short- and long-term health effects, including the potential to cause cancer and nervous system disorders. They say no one really knows what health problems will result from long-term exposure to minute emissions of these chemicals from carpets and related products.
As a result, say many scientists, it is best to reduce contact with these chemicals as much as possible.
"Carpeting may emit chemicals dangerous to health for many years," James M. Miller, a New York physician who specializes in environmental medicine, said in written testimony for New York Atty. Gen. Robert Abrams, who is leading an effort by 26 attorneys general to obtain federally mandated warning labels on carpeting.
"Infants and young children are at greater risk than adults from exposure to these chemicals," Miller said.
The medical industry and consumer officials are especially concerned about carpet adhesives and seam sealants, which have been shown to have the highest chemical-emission rates. Area rugs are less of a concern because they are smaller and often do not have latex, a chemical binder used to attach the carpet fiber to the backing.
Responding to those concerns, the carpet industry is initiating its own chemical-emissions certification program. Carpet makers can elect to have the Carpet and Rug Institute test their products for overall chemical emissions and for emission levels of the three chemicals of greatest concern: styrene, 4-phenycyclohexene (4-PCH) and formaldehyde.
Even though the industry says formaldehyde has not been used in the manufacture of carpets for about a decade, the institute has included it in its tests because of a widespread belief that it is present. All three chemicals, in large quantities, can irritate eyes and cause dizziness, nausea and confusion, as well as long-term health problems. Some, for example, are known to cause cancer and damage to the liver, kidney and brain.
The institute's emission standards were based on discussions with an industry advisory committee that included representatives of consumer groups and the federal government and on recommendations from independent research organizations hired by the industry. The standards require, for example, that 4-PCH emissions from carpets be no higher than 0.1 milligrams per square foot per hour.
Carpets that emit chemicals within accepted industry levels will carry a green label certifying they have been tested. To participate in the program, each manufacturer will be required to have each carpet type it produces tested annually, at a cost of about $1,750 per type. The carpet samples will be collected by the institute and tested within 24 hours after manufacture. The first carpets tested under the program are expected to appear in stores by the end of the summer.
The industries that make carpet cushions and adhesives, however, have not adopted such a certification program. They will test and record emissions levels, as required under the federal agreement.
The carpet certification program comes after the Consumer Product Safety Commission turned down a request by the state attorneys general to require mandatory health warnings on carpets and related products.
The attorneys general said the public should be aware of a potential for harmful effects from carpet emissions.
"The key point is that we are not seeking to ban any of these products or even restrict their sale," said Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal. "But what we think is critically important is education in the (carpet) showrooms and stores, on the carpets themselves and in pamphlets."
But the industry says such labeling would needlessly alarm carpet buyers. "We feel that anyone reading that warning label will never buy a piece of carpet," VanGelderen of the Carpet and Rug Institute said.
In March, the commission agreed with the industry. It said its initial review of injury reports submitted by allergists shows that warning labels are not justified.
"There wasn't enough medical evidence to draw a causal link from the carpets to the health effects," said Ken Giles, a spokesman for the commission.
Instead, Giles said, it will await the outcome of comprehensive studies being conducted by the commission.
But the states say the agency should not wait for test results and are considering taking the commission to court.
"These studies are going to take years," said Leslie Gersing, a spokeswoman for Abrams, the New York attorney general. "What we basically said all along is, 'In the meantime, let people know.' "
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service .