When making carpeting and flooring choices for educational facilities, schools and universities take into account factors such as comfort, aesthetics, durability and price. But institutions that make the health and safety of students and staff a top priority also must consider how the flooring they choose affects a building’s environmental quality.
Carpet has become a more common choice for classrooms and other education spaces because it typically provides better acoustics and comfort than other flooring. But concerns about how carpet installation and maintenance affects the air quality inside a school has led some to prefer resilient flooring for education facilities.
For instance, the Asthma Regional Council of New England recommends in a paper, “Health Considerations When Choosing School Flooring,” that fleecy materials such as carpet should be used in school settings only when essential for acoustic or comfort purposes and only if a school has the budget to provide adequate maintenance.
“In elementary classrooms, alternatives to carpet include hard floors with washable rugs or mats, or cushions with washable covers,” the council recommends.
Selecting carpet, resilient flooring or other types of floor covering can be complicated for school planners because arguments can be made for or against many kinds of products.
“While there is currently considerable debate over the most appropriate flooring material for use in schools, EPA recognizes that there are advantages and disadvantages to any flooring system,” the Environmental Protection Agency states in its Tools for Schools program.
The EPA notes that the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label and Green Label Plus programs have helped some carpets meet criteria for low-emitting materials and have contributed to significant reductions in the emission of certain compounds from carpets.
But, the agency cautioned, “it does not necessarily assure that emissions from carpet, floor adhesives, or cushion will not pose problems for some people.”
Carpet can become a reservoir for dust, dirt, pollen, mold spores, pesticides and other potentially troublesome materials. Regular and effective vacuuming can remove those, but, the EPA says, “inadequate maintenance can allow large quantities of dust and debris to build up in carpet. Some studies indicate that poorly maintained carpet can release significant quantities of particles into the air during the course of daily activity.”
Carpet also can act as a "sink" that collects volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from other sources and re-emits them later, the EPA says.
The EPA recommends that schools opting for carpet should choose products that have been tested for VOC emissions under the Green Label Plus testing program; can be easily cleaned and maintained; are able to prevent liquids from penetrating the backing layer where moisture under the carpet can result in mold growth; and can be easily removed without the use of toxic chemicals.
Schools also should specify the least toxic carpet adhesive system compatible with the selected carpet. Spaces where carpet has been installed should be aired out for at least 72 hours.
Resilient flooring lacks the acoustical benefits of carpet, and it also can adversely affect indoor air quality.
“Resilient flooring materials, like most new interior finishing materials, will off-gas VOCs for a period of time after being installed,” the EPA says. “Adhesives used to install and materials used to resilient flooring can also be a source of VOC emissions, although low-VOC adhesives and maintenance materials are available.”
Schools opting for resilient flooring should select floors that have been tested for VOC emissions under the Resilient Floor Covering Institute’s FloorScore program; can be easily cleaned and maintained with low-VOC cleaners and finishes; and can be installed with low-VOC adhesives and coatings to minimize indoor air pollution.
As with carpet, spaces where resilient flooring has been installed should be aired out for at least 72 hours.
Regardless of floor covering, an effective cleaning regimen is needed to maintain good air quality.
“It cannot be over-emphasized that proper cleaning and maintenance is a critical component of any flooring system,” the EPA says.
The National Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools, adapted by the U.S. Department of Energy from the Collaborative for High Performance Schools Best Practices Manual, also spells out some of the pros and cons of flooring choices with regard to environmental health and safety.
Advantages: Thermal comfort; physical comfort; provides safety for small children; noise control.
Disadvantages: May emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during and after installation; may need time to air out carpet before occupancy; can harbor dust and other allergy-causing particles; requires frequent vacuuming, which stirs up dust; adhesive and maintenance products can add to indoor pollution; can be a source of mold or mildew if it comes into contact with moisture.
Advantages: Easy to clean; high reflectivity can enhance daylighting
Disadvantages: Adhesive and maintenance products can add to indoor pollution.
Advantages: Easy to clean and stain-resistant; highly durable; high reflectivity can enhance daylighting
Disadvantages: High cost; made from non-renewable resources. Installation materials (mortar and grout) are sources of VOCs and toxic materials; adhesive and maintenance products can add to indoor pollution.
Advantages: Highly durable; low maintenance and low cost.
Disadvantages: Sealers and wax products can add to indoor pollution.
Advantages: Recyclable; biodegradable; easy to clean; durable
Disadvantages: high cost; adhesives, sealants and maintenance products can add to indoor pollution; requires special moisture-prevention care in handling and installation to prevent later indoor air quality problems.