Among the main air components associated with flooring are: allergens (substances and organisms that can cause allergy and asthma); irritants (substances that can trigger asthma and cause other respiratory problems); toxic chemicals, as in some adhesives and maintenance compounds.
Air quality may be affected by emissions from the flooring material itself, as well as by the adhesives used to attach the floor, surface coatings and maintenance materials, such as waxes and strippers. These emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a major concern. VOC's may contribute to any of a full range of health effects, including triggering an asthma attack in someone who already has asthma, gradually leading to the development of asthma in someone who doesn't have it, or contributing to health effects ranging from minor irritation to cancer.
In choosing floor materials and associated products, schools should look for low-VOC products and flooring surfaces less likely to exacerbate moisture/mold and allergens issues. Low VOC products are now widely available. The Carpet and Rug Institute rates flooring and associated products, using a Green Label for products it considers acceptable.
Air quality can be affected by water trapped in or under floors, which may support mold and mildew, associated with asthma and other serious respiratory hazards. This is of particular importance with carpets, which have a fuzzy surface that can hold moisture and support growth. Carpets also collect pesticides and dirt tracked in from outside, and release it into the air when people walk on the carpet.
Other health considerations in choosing flooring include surface qualities related to slips and falls (slipperiness and hardness), glare and seating comfort.
Non-health issues in selecting a floor. These other considerations need to be addressed: Activities in the area. In libraries and sometimes classrooms, for example, keeping noise levels down may be important; in hallways and other areas with high foot traffic, strength and durability are critical; in the cafeteria, strength, durability, and resistance to water stains matter most.
Ergonomic issues. Slips and falls are affected by how slippery a surface is, and the impact of a fall by how hard a surface is. For young children, who often sit on the floor, it may be important to have a comfortable surface to sit on.
Cost. It is important to consider not only the up-front cost of materials and installation, but the lifetime cost, which includes durability and frequency of replacement, and the cost of maintenance. Carpet, for example, typically has the lowest purchase price of any option, but expensive maintenance and low durability make its life span cost highest of all options considered here.
Environmental impact. More and more schools are looking at cradle to grave environmental impact of flooring materials. In addition to promoting good indoor air quality, the concerns include: hazardous exposure to workers in manufacturing, whether the product is made from renewable resources, contains recycled material, can be recycled, contributes to hazardous waste, and how much energy is used in manufacturing it. A list of materials for school construction that are environmentally sound has been prepared by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), used in California and Massachusetts.
Since carpet is widely associated with indoor air problems, the next section will address carpet in detail.
THE CARPET ISSUEBefore the 1950s, most gyms and schools used Terrazzo, which lasts forever, later linoleum (which then contained asbestos) and then vinyl flooring (which did not). In the 1960s carpeting became popular, as a low-cost alternative that also controlled noise and reflected light, was comfortable to sit on and attractive. But the trend in recent years is back to harder floors, because of the indoor air problems associated with carpets. Many carpet adhesives give off VOCs. They may continue to emit them long after the 48 hours or so the building is commonly recommended to be unoccupied following installation. Some data shows they stop emitting after a couple of weeks. Porous backing allows water from cleaning, spills, leaky pipes or floods to penetrate to the backing and subfloor, where it remains, favoring growth of mold and mildew. These micro-organisms then get stirred up into the air and can cause respiratory problems. The fuzzy (top) part of the carpet also retains dirt and dust, as well as pesticides and other pollutants from shoes or other sources. The carpet industry sometimes says this is a good thing--the carpet can hold pollutants out of the air until they are vacuumed up. But pollutants are kicked up by walking and become airborne. To minimize these pollutants, carpets need to be vacuumed and washed frequently (see section 5).
Finally, carpets are often warranteed for only five years, but may need repair or replacement earlier than that. VCTT, a special carpet. A relatively new type of carpet may solve the worst air problems caused by conventional (broadloom) carpet. It's called vinyl composition tufted textile, or VCTT. This carpet is made from a very dense low-tufted textile that will gather less dirt than conventional carpet. Most importantly, it has a backing that is impermeable to water and allows for impermeable welded seams. It is more thoroughly cleaned by vacuuming than broadloom, because of the thinner fuzzy layer. It can even be cleaned and dried easily following a flood. Another advantage is that VCTT is applied with a non-wet "peel-and-stick" adhesive that is unlikely to emit VOCs. VCTT retains the broadloom characteristics of noise and glare control, and seating comfort.
Concerns about VCTT. It is important to realize, that although VCTT is an improvement over broadloom, it is still carpet: its surface will retain some dirt, and when it gets wet (floods, leaks, spills) the surface can harbor mold and mildew within 24 hours. Also its impermeability can be a problem if there is water coming from the slab. In that situation, carpet of any kind is a poor choice (see the section below, Water and the slab). When VCTT is used under humid conditions, it is worth considering adding air conditioning to dehumidify the air. However, air conditioning, if improperly installed, may actually cause water problems (from condensate dripping from improperly insulated ducts). Finally, it is vinyl, and like vinyl resilient flooring (see next section), it presents an environmental concern. Vinyl manufacture can expose workers to carcinogenic materials, and when discarded vinyl is burned it gives off toxic dioxin unless burned at very high temperatures.
Other ways to abate noise. Carpet is actually one of the least effective ways to reduce noise. In rooms needing noise abatement, such as libraries, consider that noise can be better reduced by: Putting sound reducing materials in ducts, walls and ceilings. Be sure to choose non-porous materials that do not give off formaldehyde or other VOCs; acoustic ceiling tiles are among the best measures, but it is important to replace wet tiles, and to store replacement tiles well sealed or in a completely dry environment. Building the libraries or classrooms with walls at angles other than perpendicular, or moving bookshelves to achieve room spaces that are not rectangular or square; Putting pads on chair and table leg bottoms.
Other ways to provide seating comfort. In elementary classrooms, alternatives to carpet include hard floors with washable rugs or mats, or cushions with washable covers.
Recommendation. Fleecy materials (carpet and VCTT) should only be used when essential for acoustic or comfort purposes, and only if the school has the budget for adequate maintenance. In such areas, VCTT may be the best alternative. Carpet should at minimum meet the VOC testing standards of the Carpet and Rug Institute.ii For carpet care, see the section, FLOOR CARE WITH AIR QUALITY IN MIND on page 7. For other school areas, it is best to go with the most durable non-porous hard materials, such as terrazzo, concrete or tile (see attached chart). With any option, the ability to budget for appropriate maintenance, repair and replacement should always be considered. Also it is important to train maintenance personnel in the best methods to maintain good indoor air quality as well as preserve the floor.
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