Safe Carpet Removal Guidelines for Better Indoor Air Quality, and a Healthier, More Mold-Free Home
If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how I feel about wall-to-wall carpeting: It is not the best design choice for optimum health, especially for mold-sensitive people. (I intend to back this claim up, I promise.) Don’t get me wrong–I do realize that carpet can be warm and comforting underfoot, but, in my opinion, it hides more microbes and immune system irritants than the coziness it provides. From an overall health perspective, but specifically from the perspective of mold avoidance and mitigating mold and allergen exposure, limiting carpeting or not using wall-to-wall carpet altogether significantly improves indoor air quality and helps to decrease mold symptoms. For example, when I compare times when I have lived in a “clean, mold-free home” that had carpet to our current situation of living in a “clean, mold-free home” home without carpet, I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my family and I are healthier with less mold symptoms in our carpet-free home. In other words, when everything else is the same, but carpet is present, there is a noticeable difference in how much I need to clean and sanitize to successfully keep us well.
What is Really Hiding in Your Carpet?
I realize that my personal experience with carpet irritating mold symptoms is total anecdote and not scientific proof, so I will also include some studies that elucidate the health implications of having carpet in your home. To start, wall-to-wall carpet has been shown to harbor more bacteria in a typical home than a toilet seat: Based on microbiological studies done by Chuck Gerba, PhD, of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Philip M. Tierno, Jr., PhD, of the NYU School of Medicine in New York, home carpeting can contain about 200,000 bacteria per square inch, whereas a typical home toilet seat has a mere 49 bacteria per square inch. Gerba’s in-depth report shows carpet to contain fecal bacteria, noroviruses, dust mites, animal dander, saliva, pet and human urine, human skin cells, hair, insect parts, sweat, food particles, soil, fungi and fungal spores, chemicals (mostly fertilizer and cleaning agents), and sand. Some of these microbes and allergens were found to end up in carpet, because they fall from the air and become embedded there, but most travel inside and onto the carpet via the bottoms of shoes. (Remember my post about removing your shoes before coming inside? Well, Gerba found that that 3-month-old shoes typically harbor 8 million bacteria per square centimeter.) Now you know why I am such a huge advocate for removing your shoes BEFORE entering your home. It is also tremendously helpful for the health of your home to clean your shoes for mold and bacteria once a month.
Why Mold Loves Carpet
Let’s focus on just the mold for a second, though, because I think you will find this interesting: Carpet, no matter how new or clean it is, harbors mold NO MATTER WHAT. Mold growth was found on almost every carpet sample tested in the abovementioned studies. So, no matter how clean or dry you are keeping your home, even if your carpet has zero detectable bacterial growth, if you have carpet, you have higher levels of mold in your home. Recent testing has shown that all carpet needs to start growing mold is dust or dirt to penetrate its fibers. Once the dust and dirt are embedded in the carpet fibers, there is enough moisture trapped in the fibers themselves to foster mold growth without any added water or humidity. Crazy, right? This is because carpet fibers trap enough moisture for mold to flourish. As a matter of fact, testing done on carpeting in one study found that the relative humidity (RH) in a room really made very little impact on the amount of mold growth in the carpet. Even RH below 30% allowed mold to grow. Conversely, though, RH above 50% caused bacteria to grow a MUCH higher rates. Thus, it’s not just mold that needs that humidity and moisture. It turns out that bacteria like it too!
Chemicals in Carpeting
If mold and bacteria aren’t enough to concern you, the chemicals contained in and used to manufacture carpets and carpet padding should be. Concerns about the health effects of carpeting first gained national attention in 1988 when new carpeting installed at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., was linked to a rash of health complaints among EPA staff. A definitive cause of the complaints was never identified, but experts studied the connection between their symptoms and the new carpet and found some likely chemical culprits. Their findings focused on the solvent-based adhesive used to install the carpeting and 4-PC (4-phenylcyclohexene), a compound found in the synthetic latex backing. Styrene, a known health hazard and suspected carcinogen, is also found in the latex backing on carpeting. This chemical-rich backing is used in 95% of all U.S. carpets and is what gives carpeting the “new carpet” odor. Even non-chemically sensitive individuals can detect the smell even at low levels.
Since the 1988 EPA study, over 500 people have made complaints to the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) about new carpeting and the chemicals and off-gassing affecting their health. Reported symptoms include watery and burning eyes, runny nose, tingling and burning in the nose and throat, headaches, rashes, and fatigue. In response, the CPSC then commissioned a study of off-gassing chemicals from new carpeting. In it, they identified 31 chemical compounds, but none were present in airborne levels known to be hazardous for short-term exposure. Long-term effects of exposure to these carpet-associated chemicals or gases were not studied.(Consumer Product Safety Commission memorandum and final report from interagency agreement on volatile organic chemical emissions from carpets. CPSC-IAG-09-1256 (August 13, 1993)).
The Dangers of Microbe- and Mold-Containing Dust Resuspension
Now that I have convinced you to get rid of your carpet in favor of hardwoods or tile floors, (if nothing else, consider removing carpet from entrances, bathrooms, kitchens, basements, and stairs—those are the highest traffic and highest moisture areas in your home) you need the proper tools and instructions to do the job safely and effectively. Doing the job wrong can cause dangerous levels of dust and mold spore resuspension. The whole concept of dust resuspension is why I am such a dusting fanatic and HEPA vacuumer extraordinaire in our home. Microbial and mold growth present on the dust in your home has the continuous potential to be resuspended into the indoor air and to produce repeated inhalation exposure after settling on floors or surfaces. And, since carpet traps and holds onto 70% more dust than smooth, non-porous surfaces, this should be a great concern. A 2016 study published in Indoor Air magazine found the following:
“Prior studies in homes and schools indicate that indoor air to outdoor air ratios for both fungi and especially bacteria are elevated when rooms are occupied, and that resuspension from flooring is the primary mechanism. Resuspension has also been associated with increased exposure to fungal and other aeroallergens. Under common building occupancy and ventilation scenarios, growth in dust at 85%–100% RH resulted in 25%–95% of the indoor air microbes coming from the floor. Results were lower for bacteria, but still over 10% contribution at 100% RH. Thus, there is strong evidence that human occupancy increases the microbial and total particle load in indoor air through resuspension.”
When the majority of your home is carpeted, you are unable to effectively remove as much of the settled dirt and dust, because you simply cannot see or access it—it is trapped in the carpet fibers. Thus, I would conjecture that the resuspension dangers are much worse in carpeted homes where people are constantly walking over carpet. Also, you are unable to see and to fully clean up dirt and dust in carpeted rooms, because it penetrates and gets ingrained in the carpet and carpet padding.
Removing Carpet Safely
As you can see, mold-sensitive individuals need to take special precautions to remove carpet safely and effectively with as little significant exposure as possible. The prep work and clean-up are the most important steps. If you take the time to do those thoroughly and correctly, the rest will be easy. So, let’s get started!
(Note: A truly moldy carpet–with visible mold growth, or in a flooded or mold-contaminated home–should be removed by a professional mold remediator. During rremoval of truly moldy carpets, baseboards or other building materials may require removal as well. )
Safe Carpet Removal Guidelines
Personal Protective Gear – gloves, goggles, and a respirator mask are mandatory for this work
Gallon Jugs of Distilled Water
HEPA Vacuum (preferably a HEPA Shop Vac this can be used on both wet and dry surfaces)
Needlenose Pliers (for pulling up carpet and removing nails, staples and tacks)
Hammer & Crowbar (you may need these to pull off tack strips to access the carpet)
(Note: The goal here is to properly contain the area where the carpet is being removed to minimize particulates, dust, dirt, and mold spores that are trapped in the carpet and in the pad beneath from being made airborne and spread throughout the home during removal. Everything you are doing is centered around that goal. This is hard, physical work, so if you need to have a professional do it for you, assemble the supplies and print out the directions, so that they do it correctly.)
- Remove all furniture, window coverings, and personal items from the room where you are going to be working. You do not want to expose any other items or belongings to the carpet dust or airborne particulates.
- Mix your EC3 per bottle instructions to saturate the carpets with. You are going to need a few gallons for each room. Mixing in a bucket is best, because it is easiest to pour on the carpet.
- Open the windows in the room where you are working. Place box fans in the bottom part of the windows, turned so that the fan is blowing to the outside. Use your plastic sheeting and painter’s tape to seal the open area around the fan. You are trying the pull the air from inside the room to the outside. This creates negative pressure and blows particulates out of the window to the outside. (Picture is below, but you want plastic around the outside openings of yours.)
- If the carpet is located in a hallway, or on the stairs, you are going to need to employ some basic containment, since you cannot close off a room. See HERE for a post containing basic containment guidelines.
- Turn off the HVAC system during your work. You want to prevent contaminates from entering your ductwork and system.
- Place plastic sheeting over each supply and return in the room where you are working. Secure it using the painter’s tape. The HVAC must be turned off first, because it will blow and suck the plastic otherwise.
- Cover electrical outlets with the plastic and tape around the edges as well.
- If possible, plastic zipper door covering can be used to fully seal a room where carpet is being removed from the rest of the home. This is ideal, but depending upon the configuration of your home, is not always possible.
(Note: Before beginning any work, please make sure to employ the correct personal protective gear for your health and safety.)
- Use your gallons of EC3 Solution to completely saturate the carpet in the room where you are going to be working. Do not saturate more than one room at a time. It is important to work from one room to another to keep carpet fully saturated during removal and to minimize the spread of particulates.
- Remove carpet by cutting and lifting pieces out in 6” by 6” squares. Bag each square as you go in double contractor bags. Pulling the carpet up all at once creates a large disturbance and makes it more difficult to contain airborne particulates.
- Remove carpet padding with the same technique.
- Continuing saturating carpet and padding with EC3, if needed as you go.
- Remove all tacking strips around the perimeter.
- All carpet, padding and debris should be double bagged in contractor bags.
- When removal is complete, the subfloor should be completely clearly visible.
- Seal contractor trash bags and take them outside of the home for disposal.
- Once room is clear of carpet and large debris, use the HEPA Shop Vac to thoroughly vacuum the subfloor, walls, window frames, window ledges, and all visible surfaces in the room. You may need to go over the floor more than once, because any dust that was disturbed during removal takes a bit to fully settle.
- Once done with vacuuming, use the cold fogger filled with EC3 and distilled water per package directions to thoroughly fog the room. I like to start in one area and holding the fogger, direct the spray from the ceiling to the floor, moving methodically from one end of the room to the other.
- Once fogging is complete, allow the room to dry completely.
- Use the HEPA Shop Vac to vacuum the room again.
- If you have a steam mop, you can now use it to steam the subfloor to remove any remaining dust. I find the steam cleaning to be very helpful with smaller particulates and remaining dust.
- Do not lay the new flooring until the subfloor is 100% dry. I advise waiting 24 hours, but this is not always possible, so use your best judgement. Trapping moisture in wood or concrete subfloor can create all sorts of problems. As a matter of fact, if the subfloor is unsealed concrete, I would not steam it if you intend to lay new flooring the same day.
- Once one room is complete, you can remove and double bag all containment materials. Use can also remove the fan from the window and move it to the next space. Take trash outside for disposal before moving onto next rooms.