How to choose and maintain your carpet 

I like carpets. I’m the original carpet rat and I love wrapping my toes in a deep wool mix carpet when I slide out of bed.

We have such a lovely selection of products in Ireland including homemade wool flooring – it’s exciting to explore when furnishing a space.

Carpeting comes with responsibility, however, and if not maintained it can be the most suffocating indoor element in the home, potentially having an impact on our immediate comfort and long-term health. When we come to dispose of our carpets, the moment they are rolled up and shouldered, they transform from a decorative favorite to non-recyclable waste – ideally with a builder’s mask.

Steam cleaning can be done on its own machine by hiring one for a day or two or an outside company to do the work. Well worth cleaning and beautifying a nice piece of flooring that you rely on every day. Images: iStock

I have mild asthma and have a herd of pets. I am very aware that the condition of my carpets can affect the comfort of my breathing.

Wool rugs and certain products, including polyester triexta, are considered hypoallergenic and even asthma-friendly, and prevent fine allergen particles from getting into the air. A typical claim of a supplier of pure wool floors is: “Wool carpets act as a natural air filter that traps allergens such as dust and pollen and keeps them out of the breathing zone.

In fact, carpets are not only inhospitable to dust mites, but wool carpets are particularly tough. The long, coarse fibers of wool cannot be inhaled. “Coles Fine Flooring (USA)

This all sounds pretty reasonable, and I would add that a good wool blend rug is a fantastic heat and sound insulator. It’s not the carpet materials that generally cause persistent problems for anyone – it’s the perfect maintenance of a highly textured, absorbent material that we walk over everywhere, which is problematic.

Without demonizing it, it is clear that carpeting can be difficult to maintain.  The Asthma Association of Ireland advises those allergic to dust mites Without demonizing it, it is clear that carpeting can be difficult to maintain. The Asthma Association of Ireland advises anyone who is allergic to dust mites “remove all carpets and replace them with hard floors if possible”. asthma.ie

As I reached for answers, I came across a strong review on the International journal of environmental research and public health (2018).

It is a group work by Norwegian scientists who have compiled studies on the effects of carpeting in commercial and domestic spaces on human health over the past 35 years. You can find the whole thing here if you are interested: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5858259/

Two main potential problems were identified with carpeting, but they were not challenges that could not be addressed, at least in part, by examining flooring before buying it, changing it every few years, and most importantly, following good household habits.

They write: “Carpets can serve as a repository for indoor air pollutants such as dirt, dust particles, allergens and other biological contaminants (house dust mites) that can accumulate in the carpets.”

The study continues: “Neither the presence of such pollutants in the carpet nor their resuspension are necessarily associated with health consequences unless the pollutants are dangerous and exposure is high enough to cause adverse effects.”

Carpets can emit volatile organic compounds (VOC), which can cause odor and irritation to mucous membranes, especially in sensitive individuals, the study adds. “However, tests on new carpets show that emissions have been reduced and have a shorter duration.

The soiling over a longer period of time depends in part on the accumulation of dirt, care and cleaning agents and cleaning methods. “

The results of the debate on hard floors / carpeting for public and residential buildings up to 2017 were broadly similar (there is an entirely different list of harmful effects).

This includes that “the mite allergen concentrations in dust from carpeting were 6-14 times higher than in dust from smooth floors” (Van Strien 1994). Another paper found that “vacuuming carpets seems to remove larger particles but not the smaller particles associated with allergens, while a smooth floor cleaning appears to be more efficient at removing these smaller particles” (Tranter 2005). Another research study came to the conclusion that “walking on a carpet causes a significantly stronger re-aerosolization of the spores than walking on PVC” (Paton 2015).

Worryingly, the Norwegian researchers found no suitable data to support the carpet lobby’s assurances that carpets for allergy sufferers and asthmatics are likely to ever be better than clean, hard floors.

All of this may turn out to be very bad news for the soft side of the floor, but it’s worth noting the importance of cleaning in order to keep as much irritating dirt as possible in all of its tiny mucosal tickle micrometers with regular vacuuming and full carpet cleaning remove.

Dirt is not only trapped in a carpet, but is sent back into the air through steps (re-aerosolization). An externally clean carpet can be dirty deep in the pile.

So if we want carpets that may not cause health problems, it is really important to choose the right products and remove the deep dust and flakes of skin that have gotten caught in the fibers on a weekly basis.

Depending on your family’s chronic illnesses, figuring out your way out of the problem may not be enough. The Asthma Association of Ireland advises people allergic to house dust mites to “remove all carpets and replace them with hard floors if possible” (asthma.ie).

No daily walking around with a HEPA vacuum cleaner can keep up with this intelligent command response. Mold and fungal spores can also be present in materials such as carpeting. So check the humidity in the house and use the best vacuum cleaner you can find (this is not necessarily the most expensive; look out for the HEPA branding).

Concentrate on new carpets for a moment; We’ve talked about outgassing on these pages in the past.

This is a process by which new synthetic materials – from MDF to home textiles – can release volatile organic compounds (VOC) into our indoor air.

Carpet showrooms make me feel positive with this “new carpet” aroma.

This, in turn, can be controlled by choosing materials with a low VOC content (natural materials and carpets with low VOC finishers) and ventilating underlays and carpeting before we spend hours in the room with them.

Older homes with condensation problems and poor ventilation can have problems with mold spores, which increase the toxicity of a dirty floor year after year.

Here’s a quick rundown of how you can keep your carpeting (and therefore the air around it) cleaner and safer:

Imagine a shorter wool mix rug that is easier to comb out with a vacuum cleaner. Use a good underlay to protect the rug from deterioration and flaking.

Degas your carpeting and underlay from all packaging in the garage for a few days before installation. Hard floors can also carry VOCs.

Take carpets outside and shake them out if possible (wear a mask) followed by a vacuum cleaner in the back and front.

Don’t let your carpeting be a reservoir for dirt, microorganisms and toxins. Periodically vacuum from edge to edge with a HEPA rated vacuum (this can mean daily in high traffic areas).

Clean your carpet on a schedule, even if it looks clean. There are many things from skin cells to fine hair and microorganisms that you cannot see.

Depending on the type of pile, beater brushes can tear the fibers of a carpet, causing further peeling. Use the best setting for your vacuum and reduce the strength of the head if necessary.

Consider a removing shoes guideline if you insist on carpeting throughout the first floor of the house. This prevents petrochemical and biological villains from being brought in from the outside. Install mats to wipe shoes off before entering the house.

Steam clean your carpets at least once a year to reduce the presence of dust mites, dirt and allergens. Dust mites cannot be completely removed from carpets, but just like bedding and soft furnishings, they can be controlled.

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