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FRETWORK is dedicated to the concept of looking to find and follow good science whenever we things do not quite look right. We think Science, Technology, Understanding and Reasoned Thinking (STUART) is the best antidote to some of the  things we read.

We write in the hope that STUART can offer some insight.

Recently we were given a copy of:

“Toxics in Carpets in the European Union”

Report Prepared by: Jessica Onyshko, Dr Rob Hewlett

Report Approved by: Paul Ashford, Peter Scholes

Date: March 2018

The report describes the problems of the toxic contents of carpets in a life cycle consideration with an end objective of the circular economy impacts. At first read it seems quite comprehensive but a small amount of thought could lead to quite a different conclusion. Probably the best assessment would seem to be “It’s a bit more complicated than that”(*).

The report does seem to treat carpet as, well, “carpet”. Carpet of course is normally used as a floor covering and there are some floorcoverings used as a carpet that are not made by carpet manufacturing techniques. We should also take into account the fact that good quality carpets with high wear and other quality performance are often (normally some would say?) used with an underlay. These underlays are out of sight so are made with non-woven technology and use cheap and often waste fibres. Some carpets are made with an underlay type of backing – often called a secondary backing. These secondary backings are textile (nonwoven) based or may be chemical or polymer based backings. Non-woven floor covering has a backing to hold it together and provide performance in wear.

When considering both carpets and floorcoverings in general it should be remembered that they provide aesthetic and comfort properties and that includes sound reduction properties that are highly desirable to most people.

The concept of durability and wear characteristics is extremely important for carpets and this will determine where they are suitable for use and directly affect cost. It is also a very clear and crucial fact that carpets are used in public places where they must be assessed as part of the overall fire risk assessment. But this also must recognise that there are no EU standards for the ignition or burning behaviour of carpets for the household or, as it is better known, Domestic market. The lack of market for flame retardants in domestic carpets and floorcovering is a simple fact.

Carpets, in construction terms, consist of a face or pile (upper) side that may be required to be tested as part of a risk assessment for use in the Public or Contract market. The problem is that applying flame retardants has serious implications for wear and appearance and it would be highly unusual to appear on the face of the carpet. At its simplest level, the fire safety assessment for high risk areas such as protected exit routes in public buildings does not allow for the use of carpets.

A generalisation could be that public buildings use the types of carpets that have the best wear performance and are more likely to be produced with a fire safety assessment based performance. This is not made clear in the report as it seems to be directed towards working on the basis that if it could be in a carpet it will be in all carpets.

When we look at the specifics of some chemicals used in carpets we can say that e.g. bitumen is more likely to be found in domestic floorcoverings and carpet tiles and PVC would be best suited to a water resistant backing in carpets for (say) bathrooms. Putting such consideration together with the undescribed issues as to which flame retardants may be used and when we seem to have a growing level of generalisation. Chlorphosphates may be used in PU foam but as PU foam backed carpets will not produce the highest level of wear properties we can ask if they will appear in the contract sector in Public buildings. The use of brominated  flame retardants (BFRs) is again questionable. They are expensive and carpets represent a large mass so they would be applied at relatively high level and cost in the ground structure of a carpet. The only use I ever found was in the aerospace sector where cost could be equated with weight and weight could be linked to aircraft fuel costs.


Carpets as a product do have recycling issues but that is described by their use of short length and very coarse textile fibres that are held firmly in a backing matrix to provide wear and other performance characteristics. This is not the best material for recycling. The carpet industry is aware of this issue. Carpets are not the only product on the market to face these types of problem. Whether this report helps provide a solution to the problem is not clear.


However, to conflate the possible presence of certain chemicals with end of life problems without defining the circumstances of their use is hardly helpful. The Public/Contract sector already has good levels of EU regulated control covering the life cycle through architectural design to procurement and fire safety assessment and including the end of life considerations. Are they asking for more or just trying to create some basis for criticising REACH for taking too long to achieve their ends – which is becoming increasingly common and strident in equal measure.


Perhaps we should consider who this report is intended to help? The carpet industry is well aware of the problems. Specifiers and purchasers would gain little insight into their problems. Much of the discussion on what may be present follows an almost cut and paste approach set in the context of carpets. Shall we say some of the comments seem well rehearsed? Perhaps there is more sense in the opportunity to mention Toxics and Carpets in the same title as that always helps with internet searches? It does rather seem like another example of science, technology and understanding put into disarray.

*With due deference to “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” by Ben Goldacre.

Peter Wragg
Peter Wragg
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