21. EPA Ignores Its Own Toxic Experience

Sources: IN THESE TIMES, Date: 7/26/93, Title: "Deep Pile of Trouble," Author: Aushra Abouzeid; PUBLIC CITIZEN HEALTH RESEARCH GROUP HEALTH LETTER, Date: March 1993, Title: "Carpet Chemicals May Pose Serious Health Risks"

SSU Censored Researcher: Tim Gordon

SYNOPSIS: For a number of years, the carpet industry and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have received complaints about health problems associated with new carpets. The health problems include nausea, headaches, and respiratory ailments. Despite tests performed by private laboratories and the EPA itself, which indicate a link between chemicals found in new carpeting and health problems, the EPA still sends out brochures that say carpeting poses no risks to the health of consumers. But the EPA notes that more research is needed.

It is difficult to understand the EPA's stonewalling, considering its own experience five years ago. According to the Health Letter, "In 1988, the agency installed 27,000 square yards of new carpeting in its own headquarters in Washington, DC. Shortly thereafter, the EPA's union received 1,000 complaints from the agency's own workers that the carpeting was damaging their health. To protect government employees, the EPA ripped out all of the new carpet. Since then... there have been `no carpet-related complaints' from EPA workers."

Lab mice have been killed in tests which consisted simply of blowing air over the top of suspect carpet samples. This test has been completed by private labs, the Carpet & Rug Institute, and the EPA itself, all with the same results. If the mice didn't die within 24 hours, they suffered serious neurological disorders. Critics say that while more tests are needed to pinpoint the exact chemical(s) responsible, the EPA clearly has enough evidence to warn consumers and to enforce some form of regulation on the carpet industry. Nonetheless, the EPA continues to resist taking action and simply reiterates that more research is needed.

Representative Bernard Sanders (I VT), has been pushing the EPA to take the necessary steps to finish the research and begin regulating. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), also has been pushing the EPA for a response after numerous complaints from his constituents. In one case, a high school in Montpelier, Vermont, had new carpeting installed which created symptoms of nausea and eye and throat irritation. In response to a complaint by the school, the EPA sent "a voluminous pre-print copy of a manual on building air quality for building owners and facility managers."

And, of course, people from Vermont are not the only ones reporting toxic experiences with new carpeting. Across the country, so many have complained that 26 state attorneys general have petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of the federal government to require warning labels on some carpets, and to set up a hotline to handle consumer complaints. However, the CPSC, like the EPA, does not feel there is enough evidence to require warning labels and doesn't feel that a hotline is needed either.

COMMENTS: Miles Harvey, managing editor of In These Times (ITT), responded to Project Censored's request on behalf of Aushra Abouzeid, author of "Deep Pile of Trouble," who was on assignment in Russia. Harvey said that, as far as he knew, there had been very little mass media coverage given to the dangers posed by carpets. In fact, he added, "The mainstream media still tend to treat people who complain about illnesses caused by their home or workplace environments as kooks or hypochondriacs."

In These Times received letters from its readers asking what prompted ITT to run a story about something as silly as carpets. "People seem to believe that toxic pollution only comes in leaky drums," Harvey said. "But the story shows that carpets can emit human carcinogens directly into a home. Consumers also need to know that the carpets bearing the `Green Seal' for safety are not necessarily free of toxic chemicals. Our story points out that the Green Seal is an industry creation that falsely implies that a carpet will have no adverse effect on air quality."

Harvey noted that the carpet industry clearly benefits from the limited coverage given the issue and added, "the media also need to give the chemical industry much closer scrutiny. Chemical companies are big broadcast and print advertisers, but much of what they do -- from producing dangerous and often unnecessary compounds, such as organochlorines, to misleading the public about the dangers of products-goes largely unreported. The media need to start looking at all aspects of the industrial process, from manufacture to disposal, in its environmental reporting."

In March 1993, the Public Citizen's Health Research Group Health Letter noted that the Carpet & Rug Institute had implemented a "green tag" labeling program to assure consumers that a carpet is safe to buy. It also reported that critics called the program "a smoke screen ... a sham ...a joke"...a program "based on false premises."

Interestingly enough, on December 1, 1993, David Moore, a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, reported that "Under a new program launched by the carpet industry last month, most carpets manufactured after Jan. l, 1994, will include a green information label indicating that samples of the carpet have been tested and have met criteria for limiting chemical emissions." Should consumers want to know more, the Chronicle story suggested they write the Carpet & Rug Institute. (The article read like a press release from the Institute.)

On the other hand, the Health Letter suggested that consumers - with complaints should call the Consumer Product Safety Commission at 1/800/638-2772.