"This is the age of the informed consumer," said Ron VanGelderen, president of the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) at a November 15, 1993 press conference heralding the unveiling of their new carpet label and consumer information program.
CRI voluntarily agreed to the new carpet label after months of intense negotiations with Congressman Bernard Sanders' office [I-VT], the Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, and the state Attorneys General of New York, Connecticut, Oregon, and Vermont. The four attorneys general entered into direct negotiations with the carpet industry when the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) refused to even consider their petition, signed by a total of 26 state attorneys general, requesting mandatory health warning labels on carpet.
"The Consumer Products Safety Commission receives hundreds of complaints and inquiries each year about the adverse health effects associated with the materials used to make carpets," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "The agency has ignored these health concerns and refused to take action. Under the revised industry program, consumers will at least be given information to provide a basic awareness of the possible health risks. Before this agreement, the industry's brochure said there was no reason for people to be concerned about carpet safety -- an absolute outrage. The program was misleading and meaningless. It gave consumers the impression that the carpet they were purchasing had been thoroughly tested and would not pose any health hazard."
Kirsted Rand of the consumers Union said she would have preferred stronger wording on the label, but still sees it as a "huge step forward" from the former green tage program which she believes "skirted the issue and was misleading because it implied that the carpet was somehow safe, so if you were having problems, it had to be something else. Most of us would have liked to see stronger language, but CRI did come a long way."
In spite of the progress, the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America did not officially endorse the final label, which states:
Important Health Information: Some people experience allergic or flu-like symptoms, headaches, or respiratory problems which they associate with the installation, cleaning, or removal of carpet or other interior renovation materials. If these or other symptoms occur, notify your physician of the symptoms and all materials involved. Sensitive Individuals: Persons who are allergy-prone or sensitive to odors or chemicals should avoid the area or leave the premises when these materials are being installed or removed.
Note: You can reduce your exposure to most chemical emissions when carpets and other interior renovating materials are installed, cleaned, or removed by increasing the amount of fresh air ventilation for at least 72 hours. (See Installation and Maintenance Guideline or ask for Owner's Manual.) Installation Guidelines: Vacuum old carpet before removal. Vacuum floor after carpet and pad have been removed. Always ventilate with fresh air (open doors and/or windows, use exhaust fans, etc.) during all phases of installation and for at least 72 hours thereafter. When adhesives and/or pad are used, request those which have low chemical emissions. Follow detailed installation guidelines from manufacturer or from Carpet and Rug Institute. The manufacturer of this carpet participates in a program which seeks to develop ways to reduce emissions by testing samples of carpet. With fresh air ventilation, most carpet emissions are substantially reduced within 48-72 hours after installation.
Rand expressed frustration about the negotiation process with CRI because they were discussing more than one item prepared by CRI: the warning label, the carpet Owner's Manual, and an informational brochure. "Each time we would edit out a lot of language we found objectionable on the label, it would appear in the Owner's Manual, and it was incredibly frustrating," said Rand. "We did not endorse the final product and the Consumer Federation of America takes the same position we do."
One of the disagreements throughout the negotiations was the label size. The final label was several inches smaller than the size CRI initially agreed to use, according to Rand, who said, "They also dumped on us at the last minute that this label was going to be incorporated on the back of carpet samples along with many other labels -- most of which are promotional, and most of which are much larger than the label with a warning on it. So based on the fact that the label could be buried, and the fact that they had tried to just sneak by this label size change, I felt the Consumers Union could not endorse the final product. Another bone of contention is that CRI insists we describe it as a consumer information label rather than a warning label. That's just a game of semantics that obviously their lawyers want them to play."
CRI is really trying to be careful that they don't put themselves in a position of liability with the wording," stated Bill Hirzy, Ph.D., speaking as president of the Environmental Protection Agency Union, Local 2050. "It was very carefully crafted, obviously, by corporate attorneys to protect against tort litigation. We still have a long way to go to protect the public adequately. The new warning is better than the old warning, however, it is clearly not the ideal warning."
Mark Goldman, manager of Anderson Laboratories, agrees. "It's progress, but it's an incomplete label," he said. Anderson Laboratories tested new carpet samples at room temperature using a standard testing method (ASTM E981) and found that off gassing from some samples -- even as small as sever square inches -- caused severe respiratory and neurological effects, including death, in mice.
The ASTM E981 test method was developed by Yves Alarie, Ph.D., in the 1960's under the direction of the U.S. Department of Defense. It was specifically developed to reliably extrapolate mouse data to humans. It has been recommended as a reliable product test in a report commissioned by the CPSC and also by Daniel Costa, of the Environmental Protection Agency's Health Effects Research Laboratory, Pulmonary Toxicology Branch. (1, 2) Regarding the ASTM E981, Costa wrote: "We support the use of the mouse irritancy test for detecting, and possibly for comparing potencies among, indoor air contaminants ... we believe that if the mouse irritancy test is positive upon exposure to a suspected indoor contaminant, then the atmosphere is likely to be irritating to humans." (2) Based on Anderson's test results, which were duplicated by Alarie, Hirzy stated: "It looks like there really needs to be some fundamental changes in the manufacturing processes for carpet and its raw materials. And there needs to be a substantial amount of research into actually pinpointing the causes of the toxicity that Anderson and Alarie are finding."
The health effects on the test animals have consistently correlated well with the health effects reported by the people submitting their carpet samples for testing, according to Goldman. He expressed concern that the new carpet label does not address the chronic, long-term health problems being reported by some people. "The label gives some cautions about installation and the few days immediately after installation, but it doesn't acknowledge that some carpets are a long-term hazard and may continue off gassing low levels of the chemical mix for years, which is what we are seeing with our test," Goldman commented. "Most people won't notice that the new label says 'most' volatile organic chemicals are substantially reduced within 72 hours. We have not denied that. There are a lot of volatile chemical compounds that leave in those 72 hours, but there are some pretty bad ones that still hang around. And we are seeing continuous degradation in some carpets. So the label is not really addressing the fact that with some carpets you're going to have long-term problems. The real milestone that has to be passed is that they must create a toxicologically safe product. Until that happens, people are still at risk."
Rosilind Anderson, Ph.D., director of Anderson Laboratories, believes the label's ventilation message is very inadequate. "Anyone who has had any kind of carpet problem knows that this is not something for which the response is simply ventilate for two or three days. Their recommendation to open your windows and run your exhaust fans will not protect people if they have a problem carpet. Further, there are very, very few doctors who are able to recognize the early signs of carpet toxicity," she said.
Other researchers have expressed concern about the label's limitations. "I feel the label is inadequate for several reasons. When you read it, the label gives you the feeling that only people who are sensitive will have an adverse response, and in all reality that is not true," cautioned immunotoxicologist Jack Thrasher, Ph.D. "It really is not giving the full message to the public. Another problem with warning labels of this nature, is that it simply says to notify your physician if you have problems. But if the doctor is not educated regarding chemicals, then how is he going to know what tests to do, what symptoms to look for, and how to determine what is causing those symptoms? In my personal opinion, with a label such as this, it would be incumbent upon the carpet industry to inform all treating physicians in the countries where they market their products that there are health problems with carpeting and what those problems are so the doctor would have an idea what to look for."
Thrasher is also concerned that the label implies thee is a treatment for the adverse reactions to carpet, while leaving the carpet in place, "when in reality there is no treatment. If carpet is causing problems, the only treatment is to remove it and get it out of the house. All a doctor can do is recognize the problem, run the appropriate tests to determine the extent of the problem, and discuss it with the patient so they realize what they must do to prevent further illness. And again, the only way to prevent further illness is to get the carpet out of the house and avoid further exposures," stated Thrasher.
In spite of their concerns, Thrasher, Anderson, Goldman, Rand, and Hirzy all believe the label represents a positive step because it at least alerts consumers that symptoms have been reported. This view was also expressed by the New York Attorney General's office. "I am really hopeful that some people who otherwise would not have thought twice about any of these carpet safety issues will now have the opportunity to think about it because of the label, and will recognize the connection and take steps to protect themselves if they are experiencing symptoms," said Ronna Brown, assistant attorney general at the New York Department of Law.
"This consumer warning label makes an important contribution to alerting the public about the range of symptoms many people associate with exposure to the chemicals given off by new carpeting. I urge all consumers to heed the carpet warning label," advised former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams.
In spite of the warnings on the new label, CRI still insists thee are no health hazards associated with carpet. "It's not a warning label," stated Kathryn Wise, CRI's director of public relations. "It is a consumer information label. The word 'warning' infers that there is hazard in the product and there has been no proven hazard to carpet."
CRI reaffirms this stance in a "Question and Answer" sheet they are distributing throughout the carpet and rug industry to guide sales representatives' responses to consumers. The sheet states in part: (3)
Is it really a warning label?
Not at all. It is not a warning label because there is no cause for a warning. Scientists have consistently demonstrated that carpet is not a public health hazard.
If carpet is not a public health hazard, why is the industry putting any labels on its products?
This is the Age of the Informed Consumer. Increasingly consumers are becoming aware of indoor air quality issues and they want us to be straightforward about carpet's role. The overriding reason for the label, brochure, and manual is to inform the consumer.
Haven't there been some tests with carpet that actually killed mice?
One isolated laboratory purported last year to have killed mice with carpet emissions. Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and independent tests have been unable to duplicate the results. Scientists tell us that the isolated laboratory experimental tests were seriously flawed and irrelevant.
How straightforward is this information? Scientists have published a number of studies indicating human health hazards from working with carpets, including lympocytic leukemia, testicular cancer, oral and pharyngeal cancer, neuropsychiatric illness, and central nervous system damage. (4-8) EPA researchers warn that carpet tests to provide a reservoir for tracked-in chemicals adsorbed to dust, including pesticides, lead, heavy metals, and poly-nuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. The amount of lead found in dust and carpet where a child plays has been found to be the best single predictor of the toddler's blood level of lead. (9-11)
In addition, published studies have shown that a large number of chemicals off gassing from carpet are hazardous to human health. For example, formaldehyde is a confirmed carcinogen. Low-level exposures may cause hypersensitivity reactions in humans including eye, nose and throat irritation, bronchial spasm, lung irritation, and dermatitis. CRI's Wise denied that new carpet contains formaldehyde from the manufacturing process, yet significant levels of formaldehyde have been found off gassing from new carpets straight from the mill. (1, 12-16)
Other hazardous chemicals found off gassing from new carpet include acetone, benzene, styrene, toluene, and xylene, all of which are included in EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act Inventory and listed on EPA's Community Right to Know List. (1, 12-17) Independent researchers have found the ASTM E981 test method (used by Anderson Laboratories) to be a reliable test for extrapolating human health effects from the mouse data derived from a number of the hazardous chemicals found off gassing from carpet. (1, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18)
CRI hired the founder of the ASTM E981 method, Dr. Alarie of the University of Pittsburgh, to investigate Anderson Laboratories' carpet testing protocol and to try to duplicate their test results. At a June 11, 1993 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources, attended by VanGelderen, the president of CRI, Alarie testified that not only did he find Anderson's test protocol to be scientifically valid, but he was also able to duplicate her test results four times in his own laboratory. (19) Congressman Sanders' aide Pollina was present at a videotaped side-by-side test conducted by the EPA at Anderson Laboratories. The Videotape, which proved EPA duplicated Anderson's test results, was submitted as evidence at the Congressional hearing. (20)
In spite of CRI's Question and Answer sheet stating EPA was unable to duplicate the test results, Goldman is still willing to work with industry and EPA as long as there are witnesses. "Let's run the studies with EPA and industry, with observers to make sure that the protocol is truly observed and we are all doing it exactly the same way. Then let's take the samples that prove to be toxic, bring them to an independent laboratory and analyze the fumes that off gas from the sample to see what is in it," said Goldman. "In terms of getting the industry to act, I think they are motivated by the litigation, threat of regulation, and or course concern for economic repercussion, such as loss of market share. I think positive changes are occurring, but very gradually."
As part of their new "Consumer Information Initiative," the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) has assembled "response teams" to investigate carpet complaints in people's homes and office buildings.
"CRI is proposing that if someone has a carpet complaint in a home or office building, then they will send a team to that building where they will gather information as to what may or may not be happening in the building," says Congressman Bernard Sanders' [I-VT] aide, Anthony Pollina. "CRI's information says they have created six response teams to investigate carpet complaints. Each team is composed of an independent industrial hygiene consultant, a carpet mill or fiber producer representative, and a CRI testing lab expert."
How do those response teams come into play? According to the CRI's director of public relations, Kathryn Wise, when people report carpet-related health problems to CRI," right now we ask about all of the other things that are going on in their homes and what symptoms they have, what kinds of effects they are having, what kind of cleaning they are doing on their carpet, what other allergies they have. We try to find out as much about what is going on in their work space or home space as we can, and then if we still have questions about the carpet, we have a team that can be sent -- of people who are very adept at determining these things -- and they can determine what the problem is."
Attorney Kevin McIvers of Santa Barbara, California, offers the following words of caution about the carpet industry response teams:
"How could the CRI possibly do an objective evaluation when they don't even believe carpet makes people sick in the first place? Their public line is that this is all a bunch of baloney. If it was my sick spouse, child, or loved one that was involved and these guys wanted to come out and supposedly help me get to the bottom of the problem, I would be mighty skeptical. And from a lawyer's perspective, I wouldn't let them anywhere near a client of mine.
"I think it is ridiculous for them to consistently put out misinformation stating that carpet is not a hazard, and then offer to 'investigate' people's homes. If the day comes when CRI says, 'Yes, carpet does make some people dreadfully ill and it's a serious problem and we want to help,' then I would open the door and let them in. But not until that happens would I even consider it. And why on earth would they send in a carpet mill or fiber producer representative? The role of industry representatives is to promote their products. What qualifications would they have to conduct indoor air quality investigations? What kind of background would they have in neurotoxicology and immunotoxicology?
"The timing of this is especially interesting in light of the carpet and rug industry's recent resolve to not concede a single thing on any particular legal claim, and to resist carpet claims at every point. An increasing number of carpet-related lawsuits have been filed. The carpet and rug industry has made an industry-wide decision to fight and win these cases, as evidenced by a memo the CRI sent around to all the retailers. (1) While that is their position, it would just be plain dumb to let those folks come in and try to help with a serious problem like this.
"It sounds like a little initial prediscovery. They could get in the person's home or workplace and test the environment -- not to try to figure out whether carpet is making the people sick -- but to try to identify everything else that conceivably could. They can do the same thing that is done in the discovery process of a court case, only they just get a shot at doing it before the poor victim has an attorney and realizes that they're getting clobbered by the opposition. Again, since they don't recognize carpet can be a serious problem, how can they possibly be qualified to investigate a carpet complaint? This leads me to believe that the only thing they could possibly be doing is trying to undermine what someone knows to be a carpet problem, and undermine the eventual case if there is to be a case -- at least put the person on the wrong track regarding the cause of their illness.
"I sincerely hope the day comes when the industry genuinely recognizes the serious health problems some carpets pose. When that day comes, I for one -- and a lot of other people that are seriously interested, first and foremost, in helping other people avoid getting this type of illness -- will open my door and heart, and mind to them. That was Jocelyn's [Kevin McIvers' wife, who is also an attorney] and my approach initially when we first contacted the industry because of our son Christopher's carpet-induced tremors. We were wide open and wanted to work with the carpet and rug industry and we just got burned. They lied to use and misled us, and as a result, our little boy was exposed to toxic carpet more than a year longer than he needed to be. And that is just the kind of thing that is going to happen to a lot of other people with this team, I'm sure. It's really sad because in an ideal world one should be completely open with the industry that has a problem and try to help them learn what it's about and get some good case histories. However, while the industry is taking such a dishonest approach to the whole issue, it is just in the best interest of the victims to protect themselves from the carpet industry's agenda."
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