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Carpet and IAQ in Schools

By Michael Hilton

Today, schools face an enormous challenge. One of the largest challenges to maintaining our current standard of living is an inadequate system of public education. It has been the focal point of many heated debates. Yet, SAT scores have continued to decline since the early 1960's. More than thirty percent of all students entering high school today will not graduate. Educators and school administrators face the toughest challenge. Educators are asked to teach children without the benefit of adequate parental input, but teachers are held accountable for the character and actions of the children they teach. Since the early 1960's, more and more families have been required to have two parents working to meet basic economic requirements. This has provided less parental guidance, yet parents are very vocal about what they think their children should be taught.

School administrative staff have their own unique list of problems. They must act as a buffer between parents, teachers, students, local business leaders and the local Board of Education. Reduced State and Federal funding has placed a great deal more stress on administrators to disperse funds in the most effective manner. This is probably the most difficult task at hand. If funding has been reduced from prior years, cutbacks must be made in various areas. This places an even greater strain on a weakened system. There is one area that administrators continue to squeeze funds that, on the surface, appears to affect the system of education very little. This is the maintenance area. On the surface it appears that this affects the learning process the least. If various maintenance activities are eliminated or the frequency is reduced, it appears that the savings are worthwhile, but the facts are, reducing the maintenance budget is shortsighted, extremely costly in the long run, and detrimental to the learning.

An excellent example of short-sighted planning is a school system in Maine that managed to save $30,000 - $40,000 over a 4 - 5 year period by reducing maintenance costs. This school system was extremely happy, initially, by coming up with the answer to squeeze out these extra funds, but the building soon became uninhabitable and was evacuated. Building renovation costs exceeded $650, 000 to return the facility to a habitable condition. The costs continued to escalate, as the system was forced to bus students twenty-five minutes away to another school across town.

A poorly maintained school can also hamper a child's ability to learn. Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) has become a major concern to almost everyone these days. It has a major impact on education. The major reason for poor IAQ is poor ventilation and most schools fail to regularly service the ventilation system.


The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that thirty percent of our nations schools currently have indoor air quality problems. It has been estimated that due to current construction techniques this figure could be a great deal higher. These techniques originated during the early 1970's following the Arab oil embargo. The United States was overly dependent on Middle Eastern oil and as a result, the way we build was changed to make our schools more air-tight and energy-efficient. The major stumbling block has been the inability to introduce fresh air into the structure and remove stale air. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC) technology was lacking and airflow standards were reduced to lower energy consumption even further. Rather than introducing fresh, outdoor air most HVAC units remove cooled (or heated) room air, re-conditions it and returns it into the facility. This approach is ideal for conserving energy but indoor air quality has suffered as a result. Many older schools with no ventilation system have better indoor air quality than newer facilities which have no operable windows, low air exchange, or other means to introduce fresh air.

Until recently very little emphasis has been placed on the indoor environment and how it may initiate hypersensitivity reactions and retard a child's ability to learn.


As mentioned previously, budget cuts are a major concern to school administrators. Many administrators have a limited understanding of maintenance. They understand that the windows are cleaned, the floors are vacuumed or dust mopped and the counters are dusted but few understand that a well- organized, well - planned maintenance program can actually lower costs and increase federal funding in the long run. The problem many school systems have is the inability to see below the surface and evaluate long term costs. It is so difficult to balance today's budget, that it is hard to comprehend that by spending a few more dollars today, could save hundreds of thousands of dollars over a twenty year period. Take floor covering for instance. The debate between vinyl composition tile (and/or other hard surfaces) and carpet has raged since the late 1950's when carpet was first installed in schools.

According to June 1993 figures, the cost of maintaining carpet over a twenty-two year period is approximately $.51 per square foot vs. $.69 per square foot for VCT. This estimate, based on International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) figures, includes an eleven year replacement for carpet versus a twenty-two replacement for tile. Cost for maintaining these items will be discussed in greater detail later. The next consideration should be the features and benefits of each floor covering system.


VCT Benefits

Vinyl Composition Tile offers the primary benefit of endurance. VCT can last as long as twenty-two years between replacement. Spills are cleaned easily but must be cleaned quickly due to its slippery surface. VCT is an excellent choice for restrooms and entryways. A number of other perceived VCT benefits, such as lower surface contaminant levels, lower maintenance costs, and lower chemical emissions have not proven accurate after scientific testing.

Carpet Benefits

Carpet is thought to have many more appealing benefits than any other floor covering. Its relative use-life can be greatly enhanced by regular maintenance. The average cost of carpet has actually decreased when compared to other consumer goods and floor covering alternatives over the past twenty years. Tufted carpet is manufactured principally in the United States and the carpet industry offers a significant positive contribution to the U.S. balance of trade. The U.S. exports over $750,000,000 in carpet per year and carpet exports are in the state of infancy.

Carpet is more visually appealing. Floorcovering is the single largest area of design in any facility. The psychology of color and softness of touch will create any mood desired. Many psychological studies indicate color can produce a calming effect or hyperactivity or attentiveness, depending on the color selected and the desired response. Carpet has what many people refer to as "built-in attractiveness". Educators enjoy the feeling underfoot and will testify to the fact that physically, teachers complain of back and leg problems on carpeted floors. A recent survey of Florida teachers indicated more that 80% of the teachers surveyed prefer carpet over all other flooring surfaces. This is due to carpet's ability to absorb shock and reduce impact. Color coordination can be more easily achieved and students are more appreciative of its aesthetic values.

According to a university study, students learn at a faster pace on carpet versus VCT. Carpet enhances learning by improving the activity space and creating a more "homelike" atmosphere. Students are more relaxed and more receptive with carpet.

Carpet provides outstanding acoustics. Testing has shown that carpet acts as both a superior floor covering and a versatile acoustical material. Carpet absorbs ten times more airborne noise than any other flooring material and as much as most other types of specialized acoustical material. Lower noise levels reduce disciplinary problems. Excessive sound will disrupt teaching and disturb adjacent classrooms. Since no other floor covering material offers a dual purpose such as this, the initial costs of carpet should be compared to hard-surface flooring with the addition of sound insulation materials. This aspect offers a unique perspective of the "total value" that carpet represents. Carpet offers a much better safety factor than any other floor covering.

According to the National Safety Council, falls are the number one cause for most indoor injuries. Wet or polished hard surfaces are a major contributing factor in a number of these cases. Fewer "fall down" injuries occur due to the non-skid surface of carpet. Carpet reduces the incidence of slips and falls in areas that were previously identified as "high accident" areas. Carpet's ability to cushion falls and prevent serious injuries has limited medical costs and lowered litigation fees. A significant number of grocery stores are converting from tile to carpet due to safety considerations. Also less breakage occurs reducing inventory losses. Another advantage which was discovered by accident is less maintenance time is devoted to "dusting" bottles and cans. Carpet absorbs airborne dust and fungi whereas hard surfaces allow these particulates to remain airborne. In a classroom situation this is extremely important since classrooms are a breeding ground for various illnesses. Carpet can absorb these contaminants until they can be removed by proper maintenance. A recent study in two Florida classrooms indicated a lower airborne particulate count in an occupied, carpeted classroom than in an adjacent occupied VCT classroom despite a higher student population in the carpeted classroom. These respirable particles can increase visits to the school nurse and lower Average Daily Attendance (ADA) thus reducing federal funding . By increasing ADA funds this can lower the cost of carpet even further.

Carpet provides a feeling of warmth with a higher R factor than other types of floor covering. The pile construction of carpet is a highly efficient thermal insulator. Carpet's excellent insulation properties are one factor that is frequently overlooked when cost figures are evaluated. Studies indicate that carpet may aid in sustaining building temperatures over weekends and other non-use periods. Because of its insulation properties most day care centers and elementary schools install carpet to extend the usable learning space in classrooms to the floor. Children can work or play on the carpet as they do at home in total safety and comfort. Data confirms that carpet offers fifty-three percent more insulating capabilities than the finest hard surface floor covering material. While carpet is an excellent insulator and helps reduce energy costs it also offers a psychological effect of warmth and comfort. The cozy atmosphere that carpet creates is much more conducive to learning.

Carpet: More Durable, Cleanable and Affordable

As mentioned earlier, with the development of man-made fibers and high speed tufting machinery, which have increased production capacity, the cost of carpet has remained constant over the years. Some styles of carpet have actually decreased in price. Constant technological advancement has made carpet more durable, cleanable and affordable. Because of the perception that carpet is a highly sought after luxury item, many school administrators never seriously consider that they could possibly afford to have carpet installed in their schools, but this is a misconception. Carpet has been installed in schools for over forty years with a superior performance record. Improved fibers, better cleanability, better construction technology and lowered costs make carpet an even better floor covering choice.

Carpet can hide a "multitude of sins". Hard surface flooring allows soil to remain on the surface. Any housekeeper with a ceramic tile floor can describe the problems encountered in keeping it clean. Every foot print will become clearly visible thirty minutes after the area is cleaned, and the surface will become quickly soiled due to airborne contaminants which settle on the surface. Carpet on the other hand adsorbs these airborne particles and holds them until they can be properly extracted. Fewer foreign particles can be inhaled making the environment healthier. Additionally, on hard surfaces, spills or leaks must be attended to immediately due to safety considerations. This is not a major factor when carpet is considered.

Carpet is extremely effective as an air filter. Carpet acts as a sponge which absorbs airborne particulates and acts as a depository for all types of soil. Carpet will not allow soil to spread to other parts of a building, unlike hard surfaces. An effective illustration is a school which has a hard surface entryway which adjoins a carpeted area. Heavy soil concentrations can be found on the carpeted area due to the inability of the hard surface to "trap" the soil. A hard surfaced entry area actually acts as a "source" for additional soiling.

Carpet = Luxury

Carpet has always been associated with luxury. In schools, it symbolizes success and indicates achievement. The prestige and dignity that carpet establishes for any school is widely recognized. Carpet has a dramatic effect on the quality of interior design. Studies have shown that carpet's ability to deinstitutionalize a school will improve student moral and positively affect a student's attitude toward school. Studies indicate that of the top public high schools in the United States, the majority have carpet installed throughout. Carpet has a "built-in attractiveness" which, when combined with other virtues, makes carpet the primary floorcovering of choice.

Few products can offer all of the benefits that a carpet offers. Carpet's ability to perform the functions of many materials has long been recognized. It's overall thermal, acoustical, psychological, safety, low cost and low maintenance factors make it a far more desirable and flexible material than any other floorcovering material that performs a single function. If the only benefits carpet had to offer were beauty and comfort it would be worth the investment. From both an aesthetic and practical standpoint, carpet has no equal when comparing other floorcovering materials.

Ventilation and VOC's

Volatile organic compounds (VOC's) are the most publicized indoor contaminant. VOC's are invisible and sometimes odorless. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's) are emitted from a variety of sources including the human body. The term "volatile" sounds very menacing. Many people interpret volatile to mean explosive or flammable but in indoor air quality terms it refers to: readily vaporizable at relative low temperatures. Shock journalism and other media attention has distorted the issue of VOC's by attacking the sources of VOC's product by product. A large number of VOC's are considered benign. A common example of VOC's would be the delightful smell of a new car. The odor can be eliminated by lowering the windows and allowing the emissions to dissipate. By closing the windows, the emissions will continue to linger for a longer period. Another example of a VOC is the fragrant smell of a rose or the aroma of fresh cut grass. The pungent odor of a permanent wave solution used in beauty salons is still another example of VOC's. Allergies play a large role in the debate over indoor air quality. Over the past few years a microcosm of individuals have been identified that exhibit adverse reactions to a typical indoor environment. These people are described as having chemical hypersensitivity. These hypersensitive people should be distinguished from a group of people described as having multiple chemical sensitivity.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

The theory of "multiple chemical sensitivity" (MCS) has been recognized by numerous physicians but these theories have not been recognized or confirmed by the scientific community. Proponents of the MCS theory have stated that practically every part of the body may exhibit "elusive" symptoms for which no cause can be found. Opponents of the theory believe that these symptoms may be psychosomatic since no proof of its existence has been documented with accurate, reproducible, controlled data. Many of these opponents of MCS are cautious about labeling patients with this disorder because several known psychiatric disorders exist which parallel the symptoms of MCS. By placing a valid physical impairment label on these symptoms, it has the tendency to reinforce the patient's sense of invalidism.

In the classroom environment, IAQ complaints may be reported by two or three students who suspect a particular product or cause for the reactions. If the problem is related to an allergic reaction the source could be a different culprit for each case. Allergic reactions can come in a variety of forms. The reactions could be something as simple as itchy, watery, burning eyes or sinus-type symptoms to a metallic taste. On the other hand, the symptom could be as severe as asthmatic-type reactions. Allergic reactions do not have to be the classic sinus-type reactions.

There can be hundreds of VOC's which are emitted into the classroom environment. Some of which may be considered hazardous. Often it is difficult to isolate the source of the emission. VOC's may originate from a number of sources such as building materials, consumer products, furnishings and cleaning agents. Some products such as pressed wood products may emit VOC's for only a few hours. Every compound will off gas at different intensities and at varying decay rates. For example, the graph below illustrates various items found in the average classroom. As you can see, there are a number of items in the classroom that produce VOC's of some kind. These are not necessarily harmful pollutants. There are a number of common sources for various VOC's that are considered harmful pollutants. These include by-products of combustion heat exhaust, perfumes, hair spray, deodorant, nail polish and tobacco smoke. Many ordinary cleaning products can be considered hazardous if used incorrectly.

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide is probably the most overlooked indoor pollutant. High carbon dioxide levels may be an early indicator of other IAQ problems that may follow. High levels are a direct result of inadequate ventilation. ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers) standards now recommend schools to maintain a minimum airflow of 20 CFM's (cubic feet per minute) per person. Many schools that have had complaints of poor IAQ, pull as few as five (5) CFM's of airflow. Carbon dioxide is exhaled by the students as they breathe. High levels can cause grogginess, headaches, burning eyes and other sensory irritation. Some nausea or dizziness may occur. Symptoms will generally cease when the child leaves school or the suspected classroom. Carbon Dioxide particles by themselves are considered non-toxic, but they absorb other airborne contaminants efficiently and carry these absorbed pollutants deep into the lungs.

Carbon dioxide is among the easiest indoor pollutants to remedy. This can be accomplished by increasing the airflow to 15-20 CFM's. Because it negatively affects the learning process, it could be one of the easiest methods of raising educational performance.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is considered a silent killer. It is a colorless, odorless gas. It literally starves the body and brain of oxygen. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, flushed skin, disorientation, lethargic reflexes, shortness of breath, fainting and convulsions. Children are especially sensitive to carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is always formed when a fuel containing carbon is inadequately burned. Kerosene, charcoal, coal, wood stoves and automobile exhaust fumes are some of the most common sources of carbon monoxide. Several schools have experienced high carbon monoxide readings due to mechanical problems with HVAC systems as well as location of air intake vents. One school in particular discovered that buses idling near the air intakes were creating symptoms of "sick building syndrome". Another school discovered that air intakes were located too near to the furnace exhaust system.


Disinfectants are generally used frequently during the course of an average school day. Disinfectants are considered pesticides because they reduce the number of germs on some surfaces. Skin contact and vapors can be irritating. They can be especially harmful when dispensed from aerosol cans because the disinfectant can be inhaled through the nose and mouth. Disinfectants may contain ammonia. Ammonia vapors, even in low concentrations may cause severe eye, lung and skin irritation. If ammonia is mixed with chlorine bleach, chloramine gas is formed which can lead to sudden death.

Disinfectants may also contain cresol. Cresol is a highly caustic chemical. Initial contact may not produce any burning sensation whatsoever. However, irritation and intense burning will occur, followed by a loss of feeling. Cresol vapors can be absorbed through inhalation or eye and skin contact. Repeated low-level exposure can result in systemic poisoning.

Lye is often used in disinfectants as well as drain cleaners and oven cleaners. Products containing lye should only be used in areas with adequate ventilation. It is extremely caustic and it eats away materials. Inhalation or ingestion can cause deep ulcerations. Any product containing lye should be labeled "poison" or "danger".


Phenol is another ingredient in some disinfectants. It is extremely flammable, corrosive and very toxic. Phenols are also found in some paints and deodorizers. Ingestion of even a small amount has led to paralysis and coma. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting and convulsions.

Drain Cleaners

Drain cleaners are often used in school situations. Most drain cleaners contain lye or sulfuric acid. Lye has been discussed as an ingredient of disinfectants. Sulfuric acid is also used in many toilet bowl cleaners. Inhalation of sulfuric acid mist can cause irritation of the respiratory tract as well as burns to the esophagus and other mucous membranes.

Paints are found in every classroom in the United States. VOC emissions from paints are about one thousand times greater than carpet or other products typically found in the classroom. While these VOC's decay rather rapidly they may cause other problems such as covering up wood products containing formaldehyde. This allows the formaldehyde contained in most wood products to decay a much slower rate over a much longer period.

Paints traditionally have contained five to twenty-five percent pigment and seventy-five to ninety-five percent solvents. The toxicity of paint is dependent on the type and concentration of pigments and solvents used. Some paints may be hazardous if fumes are inhaled or ingested. Many paints are highly flammable. Some solvents used in paints (excluding latex-based paints) include petroleum distillate, naphtha, xylene and toluene to name a few. Many school construction classes use paints, paint thinners, paint removers and varnish removers on a frequent basis. These should only be used in areas with adequate ventilation. Appropriate eye covering and respiration filters should be used by all students in the vicinity.

Naphtha, which can be an ingredient for some paints is flammable, toxic and considered an irritant. Naphtha's are also used for softening varnishes, oils, greases and some plastics. Naphtha's enter the human body through inhalation of vapors, ingestion and eye or skin contact. Toluene and xylene are both found in paints, paint and varnish removers, cement, glues, cleaners, degreasers, lacquers, insecticides and nail polish. Both toluene and xylene are irritating to the skin, respiratory tract and can cause liver damage. They are considered volatile, flammable and toxic. These irritants enter the body through ingestion or inhalation. They are less likely to enter through the skin than other toxic chemicals. These chemicals target the nervous system, eyes, blood, liver and kidneys. Symptoms of exposure include confusion, dermatitis, fatigue headache, insomnia, teary eyes and nervousness.

Petroleum distillates are also found in some paints. They are also contained in other consumer products such as furniture polish, pesticides, lip gloss, paint thinners and more than one hundred other products. Many petroleum distillates are considered long-term toxins and known carcinogens. Many of these products are used in the classroom in cleaning solutions or personal care products.

Formaldehyde has been an especially troublesome VOC for several years. It is used in the manufacture of a large number of construction and personal care products. At one time the carpet industry used formaldehyde in the application of backing material. It was determined during the early 1980's that formaldehyde was a suspected carcinogen. The carpet industry voluntarily put into effect a plan to eliminate formaldehyde from the carpet manufacturing process. Currently, no U.S. carpet mill uses formaldehyde in the manufacture of it's products. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for other industries. Formaldehyde can be found in adhesives, cosmetics, deodorants, detergents, fertilizer, fiberboard, foam insulation, fungicides, furniture, paints, plastics, plywood products, particle board, rubber, synthetic lubricants, textile products, urethane resins and water softening chemicals. Almost all of these products can be found in a typical classroom on any typical school day. Formaldehyde emissions are found in most classrooms and the source is usually illusive. While carpet is sometimes blamed, due to misinformation, the source is usually the walls, insulation or sub-floor material. Paint may prolong the liberation of formaldehyde emissions by slowing the release level and lengthening the decay rate, especially in plywood and furniture products.

Formaldehyde is a possible human carcinogen. Sensitivity is primarily associated with the presence of formaldehyde gas. Symptoms include eye irritation, itching, mucous membrane irritation, nausea and irritation of the upper respiratory tract. Some patients suffering from exposure to formaldehyde gas have been misdiagnosed or exhibited signs of asthma, bronchitis, depression and hypochondria. Some physicians have noted patients that have become sensitized to formaldehyde after continued exposure. Recently, a California computer analyst reached an out of court settlement of $600,000 with his employer, as a result of neurological damage he insists was a result of formaldehyde emissions from office furnishings.

Furniture Polishes and Indoor Air Quality

Many school maintenance staffs use furniture polishes as part of their daily discipline. Many furniture polishes can negatively affect indoor air quality also. There are essentially three types of furniture polishes which are used in schools: aerosol sprays, emulsions and solvents. Each of these three types contain specific chemicals which allow easier application of wax or oil to the furniture surface. These chemicals may include ammonia, naphtha, nitrobenzene, petroleum distillates and phenol. Concerns should include inhalation and or ingestion of the fumes or vapors of these products. One final concern should be the residue that is left behind after application. In early childhood teaching situations, care should be taken that none of these chemicals is ingested.

Solvent-based glues and adhesives are among the worst pollutants of the indoor environment due to the solvents many contain. The adhesive industry has made enormous strides over the past several years by introducing new products that contain less solvents and produce fewer VOC's. It should be mentioned, however, that many adhesives are still being sold that produce high emission levels. Care should be taken when selecting appropriate glues, rubber cements, epoxy and other instant glues for classroom use. Care should also be taken in selecting adhesives for use by maintenance staffs and contractors. Many people will experience sensory irritation during the application of wallpaper glues, flooring adhesive for all types of flooring, and bonding many materials together. The safest glues available are most white glues, as well as library paste, yellow wood glue, as well as hot melt glue sticks.

Many art supplies contain toxic chemicals which should be avoided if possible. Marking pencils, glues, paints, pottery equipment can all negatively affect the quality of indoor air in the classroom.

Ventilation in art room and construction workshops should be properly maintained and frequently monitored. Pesticides are among the most troublesome pollutants of the indoor environment. All pesticides are considered toxic. The Environmental Protection Agency governs the labeling and registration of all pesticides. Pesticides are especially troubling because of the residues which are left behind to continue destroying pests. Many pesticides have been decertified or placed on a canceled, suspended, or restricted list due to various complications caused by the suspected pesticide. The most infamous ban involved the pesticide DDT. It was initially thought to be a carcinogen but the environmental damage it caused proved to be much more devastating. DDT found it's way into the food chain which almost single handedly destroyed several animal species. The American Bald Eagle was pushed to the edge of extinction due to the effects of DDT and other environmental hazards.

Most pesticides contain "active" ingredients which are directly responsible for killing the desired pest and "inert" ingredients which promote or aid the action of the active ingredient. All active ingredients must be listed but inert ingredients did not have to be listed prior to 1987. The EPA has developed a list of 122 inert ingredients that must be listed if contained in a specific pesticide. Some inert ingredients are known carcinogens.

A California school recently made headlines because a number of students suffered fainting spells. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent trying to isolate the cause for the problem. The problem was fairly elusive due to its random occurrence. Several suspected causes were incorrectly labeled. After two to three years the true cause was identified. Insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers, which were being applied to the outside grounds, were being drawn into the air intake vents and dispersed to various classrooms. Some classrooms were affected more than others which led the officials to believe the problem was initially related to items found in specific classrooms.

In selecting a pesticide in a classroom situation it would be helpful to have information about possible scenarios which might develop. Unfortunately, information is not always available about possible health effects or environmental damage caused by many pesticides currently in use.

Photography Chemicals

Another often overlooked pollutant in the school environment are photography chemicals. Many schools have their own print shops in the vocational department. Many of the chemicals used, negatively affect the quality of indoor air. Some photocopiers used by many school systems also add unwanted pollutants. Many toners, photography equipment and inks may contain a variety of toxic chemicals. These chemicals may contain selenium, benzene and acids. Many of these chemicals are known human carcinogens. Toners used in photocopiers usually come in powdered form. When these powders are poured, particles may become airborne which are then inhaled. All photography equipment, printing equipment and photocopiers should be located in a well ventilated area.

These are only a few of the dozens of products which are used on a regular basis in the classroom environment. Other items which are not considered for use in the classroom environment may find their way into the classroom by various means.

About the Author
Michael Hilton was the original creator of Carpet Buyers Handbook. Having owned and operated a carpet wholesale company, Hilton has a vast knowledge about all-things carpet related as well as other types of flooring.

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