Maintenance: don’t let yourself be put to the mat!

They are soft, cozy, colourful, warm, and comfortable; they dress our interior decors marvellously well, but they can reveal themselves to be very noxious to our health.  Carpeting is a choice receptacle for all sorts of pollutants, and even cleaning them can be noxious.  Here are some of the reasons.

The 20% of Canadians suffering from a pulmonary illness are certainly more aware than others on the question:  carpeting, rugs and other similar floor coverings, as with upholstering materials, are collectors of dust and other allergen carrying micro organisms, not to mention irritating chemical emanations.

According to Don Fugler, main researcher at the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the quantity of dust removed from carpeting is many times superior to that of a hard floor.  And, if a broom can remove up to 95% of undesirable particles on a hard floor, passing the vacuum only removes, on average, 40% of dust on carpeting.  “In fact, there are three types of elements which lodge in carpets and are real sponges.” Explains the researcher: “They can be of a biological nature (skin, hair, food, mites…) or mineral (earth, sand, lead…) or even chemical which notably comes from materials used during construction, particularly paint vapours.

To limit this interior pollution it is recommended, among other things, to remove shoes before entering the house, to vacuum carpets more than once a week, and to cover carpeting and furniture well during renovations.

So much for the ABC’s of regular maintenance.  But the choice of having carpeting at home also has its risks when it comes to deeper cleaning.  The two principal ones are mould and chemical products.

Give me Air!

The number one rule when comes time for cleaning is to take advantage of the best possible ventilation to allow for evacuation of toxic emanations of certain cleaning products, and a faster drying if we use liquid products.  We should therefore choose a warm and dry period for this type of household activity because the danger of carpeting which stays humid too long resides in the formation of microscopic mushrooms known as mould.  The 270 recognized species in Canadian homes all have the particularity of releasing chemical substances and spores which, according to Don Fugler, may have “at best, negligible effects on our health, or at worst, cause allergies and serious illnesses.”  Other than persons already suffering from respiratory troubles, individuals having a weak immune system are at risk, as are pregnant women, children and older persons as well.  Also, knowing that certain moulds are invisible, we will work harder to dry our carpeting and we will privilege rugs and carpets which we can take outside to fresh air, rather than carpeting and other unmoveable floor coverings.  Another good reason for proceeding with cleaning carpeting in a well ventilated environment: the chemical agents contained in certain cleaning products.  Other than pesticides, whose noxious effects we need not be reminded of, stain removers and protectors are the most dangerous because they often contain chemical solvents which give off toxic emanations.  And to complete the difficulty chart, the composition of synthetic carpeting poses a problem due to substances contained in certain glues and various treatments administered at the time of manufacture (fungicide, pesticide, waterproofing, stain repellents and colour fixatives) can be activated by chlorine contained in cleaning water or in reaction to other products.  In passing it is interesting to note that many carpets contain volatile organic elements (VOE), such as benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, who have the sad characteristic of releasing gas and vapours up to five years after installation, and solidify before re-depositing themselves on any surface of the house.  Some of these are cancer-causing; others affect the nervous and endocrinal systems.

We can then understand very well that the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) would sanction the acquisition of coverings in non-treated natural fibres and suggests asking the manufacturer of your future carpeting to air it out for three days before delivery and to leave our windows open for at least the same amount of time after installation.

Gray Zones

On the CMHC Internet site, many articles relate to perfluorooctyle sulfonate (PFOS), a substance appreciated for its hydrophobal and lipophobal properties, which is to repel water and oils.  PFOS was the main ingredient in the Scotchgard® line of products, manufactured by 3M Corporation and distributed for 40 years before being removed this year from the ingredients of these products.  Long thought totally inoffensive, PFOS has revealed itself to be a persistent organic pollutant (POP) of which traces have been found almost everywhere in the animal world, including humans, whose body takes an average of four years to be able to totally eliminate (the highest concentrations were found in children).

Illnesses attributable to PFOS are numerous; according to the Environmental Working Group, an ecological research group based in Washington, these are various irritations (eyes, nose, lungs), headaches, fatigue, nausea… We haven’t yet studied the cancerous effects in humans, but according to the conclusions of the most recent studies, doses measured in children and adults are sometimes even higher than those causing cellular, thyroidal and reproductive disturbances as well as malformations and cancers of the pancreas, breast, testicles, prostate and liver in laboratory animals.  For its part, the Cooperation and Economic Development Organization (CEDC is an international organization grouping together thirty or so countries, including Canada) are even studying the possibility of the occurrence of PFOS in the development of bladder cancers, but research has barely begun and we are still incapable of measuring the real effects of this substance on the environment and the human being.

Water!

In its overview on the dangers of carpeting maintenance, the CMHC also raises the question of shampoos (dry, liquid or powder) and mousses which generally contain solvents and detergents such as perchloroethylene which threaten our health if its application surpasses a certain time limit.  Even the most performing vacuums cannot eliminate all the residues, which means that a child can very well ingest them by bringing his hands to his mouth after joyously rolling on a “very clean” carpet.  Don Fugler of the CMHC recommends the use of central vacuums which can eliminate all the particles, or a HEPA type vacuum; both procure a slight advantage over other vacuums.

Unless carpeting is extremely dirty, water with a mild soap added, a good rinsing and quick drying is the simplest and surest method of cleaning carpeting.  As such, distributors of Oriental and Kilim carpets recommend a traditional washing with plenty of water, once every three or five years in order to extend the life of these costly floor coverings.  When it comes to the cleaning professionals, certain have kept up with environmental changes and have developed ecological procedures.  This is the case with the Steamatic Company, who uses a hot water dirt extractor.  “Whenever possible, we use nothing but a water softener, a phosphate-free emulsifier, to avoid any reactions with products potentially contained in the carpeting, comments Jules Piché, director of the Montreal based company.  Water temperature is controlled in a way which frees dirt (dust and oils) and maintains it in suspense before extracting.  With our procedure, carpeting dries in seven hours and 96% of bacteria and allergenic agents are eliminated.  Of course, when necessary we use more aggressive products, all of which are biodegradable and anti-allergen.  Besides, they are endorsed by the 22 countries where they are distributed, Sweden being among them.”

In other respects, the Polti Canada Company carried off the prize for air quality, awarded by an independent jury in a contest organized in 1998 by La Maison du 21e Siècle for the Vaporetto steam cleaner which it manufactures and distributes.

Practical Advice

Clearly it is better to reduce interior textile surfaces inside a home and to protect them from dirt by following basic precautions and by regular maintenance.  This being said and to be able to continue to appreciate the beauty of carpeting and the comfort they provide, following is some ecological advice for choosing and for cleaning:

• When purchasing, avoid synthetic materials such as butadiene styrene backing; opt for natural, non-treated vegetable or animal fibres.
• Don’t wait until carpeting looks dirty before cleaning.
• Proceed with a water or steam cleaning once every two years.  Ensure you do not saturate and that it dries within 24 hours.
• For regular cleaning, vacuum carefully, sprinkle with cornstarch or baking soda, let work one hour then vacuum again with great care.
• In case of accidents, sponge up spilled liquids with a white or light coloured cloth, without scrubbing, so as not to damage the fibres.  If needed, delicately scrape with a spatula or spoon.  If the stain is oil-based, sprinkle with baking soda or cornstarch or corn flour.
• Dab rebel stains with hot soapy water (dishwashing liquid or mild soap) and rinse with a few spoonfuls of white vinegar in a cup of water before sponging with a clean cloth.
• Salt, borax, club soda and boiling water are other good natural cleaners.
• If you use the services of a professional cleaner, insist he not use chemical products.  If he answers that this is impossible, talk to him about the Biomor products, manufactured by the Avmor Company of Laval, which are composed of bacterial solutions which disintegrate organic matters lodged in carpeting by jointly acting with the bacteria of these same organic matters.  A chemical reaction caused by biological elements.  Interesting…

Avmor:  (450-629-8074
CHEC: www.Checnet.org (Virtual House)
CMHC: 1-800-668-2642
www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/ (enter Healthy Housing in search box)
Don Fugler (of the CMHC): dfugler@cmhc-schl.gc.ca
Polti Canada: (514) 685-8770 or 1-888-697-6584 (www.polti.ca)
Health Canada: Pierre Roousseau (418) 649-6416 (www.hc.sc.gc.ca)
Steamatic: Jules Piché, (514) 351-1234

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