August 16, 2013

Werner Braun: The ‘supposed’ hypoallergenic benefits of hardwood flooring

A recent article in the flooring trade magazine Floor Trends touts the “Hypoallergenic Benefits of Hardwood Flooring.”

The implication in this article is that hard surface floors are the products of choice for those who want to avoid allergic reactions or to reduce the incidence of asthma in their home or workplace.

Once again, this urban legend that hard surface floors are better for asthma and allergy sufferers has been permitted to raise its ugly head. And it’s a complete and total myth.

Would it surprise you to know that exactly the opposite is true? It may sound unbelievable, but it becomes less so when you look at the evidence.

First of all, there are a number of studies that show that carpeted flooring is actually much better in terms of hypoallergenic — such as not likely to produce an allergic reaction — qualities than hard surface floors.

In 2001, we asked one of our CRI members, fiber manufacturer Solutia, to do an aerodynamics study which involved measuring the amount of dust that was re-suspended in the air after test subjects walked across both hard surface flooring and soft surface flooring. More dust was stirred up after the test subjects walked across the hard surface floors.

We decided that because “a picture is worth a thousand words” we would take this test a step further. We repeated the experiment, but we flooded the room with black light, which revealed a huge dust cloud that rose behind the footsteps on hard surfaces but which was minimal behind the footsteps on carpet.

If this weren’t enough, we reproduced the same study, but put air monitors at various intervals above the floor: at six feet, at three feet and at one foot. We measured how many particulates became re-suspended after test subjects trod over both types of flooring. Would it surprise you to know that there were vast amounts of particulates from the hard surface and hardly any from the carpeted floors?

One way to envision this is to imagine that when our fingers are spread apart they function like tufts in a carpet. With our hands spread out, dust and other particulates will be pulled, by gravity, between them. If you can imagine the top of your desktop as being like a hard surface floor you can see how dust and particulates have nowhere to go — they accumulate on the surface where they can be easily stirred up.

There’s a lot of science behind all of this. In 2008, we hired Mitch Sauerhoff to do a worldwide literature search for studies that look at the relationship of carpet to asthma, allergies and hospital visits. He uncovered 25 studies that had been done throughout the world, and each study came to the same conclusion: that if you have asthma or allergies, you are better off at home, at school and at work in a carpeted environment.

In fact, those studies revealed that there were fewer symptoms, fewer medicines prescribed and fewer doctor visits among those who were exposed to a carpeted environment compared to those exposed to hard surface flooring.

I found several of those studies to be of particular interest. In one, comprised of children, the researchers looked at a group of students who went to carpeted schools and a group that did not. They also looked at one group of children who had carpeted bedrooms and one group that did not.

Once again, the results were similar. Those who went to school and/or lived in carpeted environments were healthier and had a better quality of life than those in the control group.

Incredibly, a significant number of doctors recommend getting rid of carpet to their patients who suffer from allergies or asthma. We asked a great many of them — 300 or more — to show us even one scientific study that validated their recommendation to remove carpet from an allergy or asthma sufferer’s home.

And do you know what? We did not receive even one.

In addition to doctors’ concerns, we often hear about parents of young children who say they’re worried about carpet and health because their babies spend much of their first year of life crawling around on the floor.

But again, with all due respect, the opposite of what many of them assume to be true is actually the case.

With infants in mind, we commissioned a University of Georgia study to research the amount of dust and allergens that transferred between different types of flooring and the skin. What the researchers found was that between 3 to 5 percent of dust and allergens transferred to the skin from carpeted floors, whereas between 95 percent to 100 percent of that particulate matter transferred to the skin via hard surface flooring.

Part of this is, of course, because carpet acts like a filter that keeps particulates low. As a consequence, we need to clean the “filter” on a regular basis. The best way to do that is to clean it with a Seal of Approval-recommended vacuum cleaner, which has been certified to remove dust, dirt and particulates from the carpet and to retain them within the canister.

I would like to offer a challenge to our hard surface peers to come up with the data — the scientific proof — that actually supports the position that hardwood is more hypoallergenic than carpet.

From what I’ve seen over the past decade or so, it just ain’t so.

Werner Braun is president of the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute.

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