There are benefits and drawbacks to using rugs in the nursery, or anywhere throughout the house. Although carpeting can accentuate the room’s décor, help insulate and add to a room’s warmth, act as a cushion against breakage or falls, and absorb sound, it can also be made with toxic chemicals, hold dust and dirt, and trap asthmagens or pathogens. Rugs can make a room more difficult to keep clean, contributing to poor air quality. Given that babies and toddlers crawl around on the floor and breathe the air that is closer to the ground, any rug used in the nursery should be toxic-free and easily cleaned.
As many as 44 highly toxic chemicals in carpets can threaten your family’s health. These toxins are known to cause respiratory disease, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and immune and developmental health problems in children. Carpets are often treated with stain-resistant per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), antimicrobials, and flame retardants. These additives are marketed as beneficial, without revealing their toxicity. Carpet backing may be made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) with phthalate additives, or styrene butadiene. Toxic adhesives used to install wall-to-wall carpeting may contain bisphenol A, epichlorohydrin, or nonylphenol ethoxylate. Most carpets on the market today are in some way certified "green" or otherwise publicly rewarded, even though most of them contain toxic substances that are not disclosed to you, the consumer.
It is difficult to have a hypoallergenic home and have rugs. In addition to toxic chemicals, carpeting can be a hotbed of bacteria, pollen, dust, and dead skin. Outdoor debris from clothing and shoes that gets tracked onto a rug becomes trapped in the fibers and is released each time someone walks or crawls on it. Allergens like pollen and dust can cause coughing, sneezing and wheezing when kicked into the air. Dead human skin cells become the primary food for dust mites, a common trigger of year-round allergies and asthma.
If you have wall-to-wall carpeting, vacuum often and have your rug professionally cleaned twice a year with a nontoxic cleaner. Area rugs avoid the toxic substances in padding and adhesives, but should also be vacuumed frequently to reduce dust and pathogens. Make sure to find natural-fiber area rugs (wool, jute, sisal, cotton) that have no synthetic backing. Throw rugs and runners can be shaken outdoors and thrown in the washing machine and dryer. When buying a rug, demand information from retailers and manufacturers, and purchase carpets only after getting a full accounting of contents and ensuring that it does not have the toxic chemicals identified in this guide.
References & Resources
Learn more about the hidden hazards by reviewing the glossary or take a deep dive by reading Safer Products for Babies and Toddlers: Resources and Recommendations for Retailers.
Healthy Building Network has assessed some of the key chemicals of concern in carpets.