Carpets and Cancer: In Honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

It’s Time for Carpet Manufacturers to Disclose their Toxic Secrets: In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Miriam Gordon, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)

October was named Breast Action Awareness month for a reason. One in eight women born in the U.S. will get breast cancer – the second most common cancer found in females. But progress is being made. As a result of growing awareness of the dangerous toxic chemicals present in everyday products, consumers, particularly women, are becoming increasingly safety-minded shoppers. Nowhere is this growing concern more evident than when women arduously study ingredient labels on the foods they purchase.

But most consumers are unaware that carpets contain over 44 toxic chemicals, some of which are known to cause cancer. Yet manufacturers consistently fail to disclose these ingredients on the labels of the carpets that are ubiquitous in indoor environments- homes, workplaces, schools, and hospitals. Unlike food producers,  carpet manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients in their products.

A recent report by the Healthy Building Network (HBN) uncovers the breadth of health threatening toxic chemicals used in a typical carpet. These include:

  • Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) – associated with breast cancer, among other deadly diseases.
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that releases dioxins and furans when carpet discards are incinerated. These have been linked to numerous cancers and other diseases.
  • Fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants- contains arsenic, lead, and mercury which are known to cause developmental and reproductive harm in children.
  • Halogenated flame retardants- linked to reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development.
  • Antimicrobial and antibacterial preservatives- containing formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and triclosan, a hormone disrupting chemical.
  • Isocyanate- a highly potent respiratory hazard when inhaled. One drop of liquid isocyanate on a person’s skin can cause the onset of asthma.

Lawmakers and regulators should have banned these chemicals long ago and carpet manufacturers, rather than fighting the regulation of toxic chemicals, should not be using them. Instead, the carpet industry engages in unconscionable corporate greenwashing, like certifying many toxics-filled products as “green.” The most common environmental carpet certifications in use (Green LabelTM and Green Label PlusTM) are implemented by the industry trade association, the Carpet and Rug Institute.  Green Label PlusTM, only tests for one of the 44 chemicals listed by the HBN.

It is commendable that carpet manufacturers, like Mohawk or McLarens, engage in funding breast cancer awareness and research. However, wouldn’t it make more sense for these companies to stop using potentially cancer-causing chemicals in the first place? Funding research to treat cancer, rather than ensuring that their products don’t cause cancer,  is another example of corporate greenwashing.  

At the very least, carpet companies should be fully transparent about the chemicals in their products- providing a list of ingredients on the product so consumers can make informed choices when shopping for carpet- just like they do at the grocery store.

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, let’s demand these proven solutions are vigorously, and immediately, implemented by all carpet manufacturers, including  the banning of the most toxic substances and requiring full and public disclose all material contents in new carpet.  If enough public pressure is applied, the carpet industry will have no choice but to bend to our will – thereby reducing breast cancer, preventing illnesses, and saving lives. By next October we shouldn’t have to make these pleas for common-sense reforms and decency again.

Miriam Gordon, a consultant to GAIA,  is working to ensure that the carpet industry transitions its practices to promote a more circular economy. She has over 20 years experience in waste prevention-focused policy and program development and organizational leadership.

See also: Buying Carpet: My Consumer Nightmare