THE DETAILS: Many plastic floor coverings—particularly vinyl, which is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—are popular because they’re cheap and relatively easy to install. Unfortunately they’re laden with phthalates, some of which have been linked to breathing problems, sexual development problems in baby boys, low sperm count in men, and possibly cancer. Preliminary research is also finding a possible link between phthalates and obesity. In the current study, scientists found that homes with more plastic products in them tended to have higher phthalate levels in the carpeting. The carpets apparently offer a cushy hiding spot not only for pet dander and dirt, but also chemical irritants like phthalates that can exacerbate asthma.
WHAT IT MEANS: If you’re in the market for new flooring, you may want to scratch carpeting and vinyl off your list. Vinyl has been dubbed “the poison plastic” by many public health and environmental advocates, and Healthy Building Network researchers recently released an analysis of resilient flooring and chemical hazards naming vinyl “worst in class” because of its cancer-causing by-products and slow-releasing chemicals that off-gas in homes throughout the vinyl’s lifespan. And while carpets don’t necessarily contain phthalates, they trap them along with other harmful pollutants, often including formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
While all this talk may tempt you to rip out your flooring, don’t. The key to keeping dangerous chemicals at bay involves ecominded cleaning:
• Know how to dust. It’s particularly important to keep dust under control if you have little ones in your home because they crawl on the floor and can’t resist shoving their hands in their mouths. That increases their exposure not only to phthalates, but also flame-retardant chemicals shed from curtains, furniture, and electronic products. If you have carpeting, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to capture dust. Set the vacuum to clean bare floors if you have hardwood or other noncarpet surfaces, or wet-mop with a mixture of 1 gallon water and ½ cup white vinegar. Avoid sweeping with a broom beforehand because it just kicks dust up into the air. Feather dusters are another no-no, says Sarah Janssen, MD, physician and scientist with Natural Resources Defense Council. Instead, use a wet cloth to dust furniture and other surfaces.
• Battle the stink safely. Air fresheners and harsh cleaning products are often packed with phthalates, which are used to carry artificial fragrances. What’s worse, using harsh cleaning products on vinyl and other plastics can speed their leeching of harmful chemicals. If you’ve got a funky smell in your house, don’t cover it up—get rid of it. Open the windows, set out baking soda or a bowl of white vinegar to absorb the stink, and use a white vinegar solution or regular soapy water to clean up a mess. “You don’t need heavily fragranced antibacterial soaps,” says Dr. Janssen.