I came across an Internet article recently that terrified me. It was about the “dangers” of chemicals in my carpet. The article said that carpets emit formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound (VOC), which I recall is what they preserve biological specimens in after they’re dead. It is a colorless gas with a pungent odor, and the FDA says it can cause cancer, irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, coughing and wheezing, fatigue, skin rash and allergic reactions. Yikes! I wanted to tear out all my carpeting on the spot!

It went on to say that some carpets were made of natural fibers with no chemical treatment, and that these were safe. Also, the carpets with natural fiber backing were supposed to be less toxic. My carpet is all nylon, which doesn’t grow on a nylon tree, I can assure you. Well, by this time I was trembling in fear, as I have a number of allergies. I immediately got on the phone with my local Washington DC carpet cleaning guy. Boy, am I glad I did!

Seems a lot of people have asked him about this story, so he did a little research. Turns out, formaldehyde has not been used in carpeting for 30 years! Furthermore, tests have been done on the raw materials that go into carpets and none were found to contain formaldehyde. I asked him who exactly had done these tests, and he told me it is the Carpet and Rug Institute. They are apparently the big honchos in the carpeting industry. They did testing on a lot of different carpets at a lot of different mills, and found no evidence of any significant VOC contamination in any samples. They even have this certification program called Green Label Plus (I’m not sure, plus what?) which tests for how carpets affect indoor air quality. Quality carpets — and thank goodness, that includes mine — have received this certification so you know they are safe. So says my carpet cleaner guy.

The source of the original scare turned out to be a website for newlyweds called “The Nest”. Once blogged there, the story got picked up and redistributed by a wire service to newspapers nationwide. The story spread like wildfire, but it was wrong. My question then is: how much of what I think I know is wrong? What exactly does it mean to say you “know” something? I no longer feel threatened by my carpet, but I think I am having an existential nervous breakdown over epistemology. Imagine, if I had hardwood floors, my life would have been so much simpler! Still, I love my carpets…

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