Emissions from Carpet Tiles Sickens Three Minnesota Workers

HBN | April 2019 | Newsletter

Symptoms of “sick building” syndrome include “headache; eye, nose, or throat irritation; dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and sensitivity to odors”.1 These symptoms can develop after long-term exposures, or they can occur after a single instance of exposure, as in the case reported by the Minnesota Daily last month.2 Three carpet installers were sent to the emergency room after installing carpeting in an apartment building intended for student housing near the University of Minnesota. The workers could not tell doctors what they were exposed to because the carpeting did not include a complete list of contents. To find out, the workers first measured the air quality with a device ordered off of Amazon, which immediately “jumped to red” when exposed to the carpeting. The Minneapolis Building and Construction Trade Council then sent carpet samples to a lab for emissions testing. This testing found total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) at levels that “significantly exceed” typical levels in the air. The chemicals noted on the report included some on the Minnesota Department of Health list of Chemicals of High Concern.3

What we know is that there is no law or regulation that requires building product manufacturers to disclose all product content. One of the workers interviewed for the report said he has persistent symptoms including impaired memory function, ringing in his ears, and fatigue. Because current regulations will not protect consumers, workers, or building occupants from toxic chemicals in building products, it is up to us [building owners, designers, specifiers, architects,YOU] to know better, so we can do better. This story highlights the need for full disclosure of building materials.

In our January newsletter, we made the case for full product transparency using the Health Product Declaration (HPD). We noted the need for transparency because workers --including carpet installers in Minneapolis-- have a right to know what chemicals they are exposing themselves to. We also noted the need to help diagnose and treat illness associated with exposure to chemicals. These workers had to wait months for the testing results to come back from the labs, and even then only partially understood what chemicals they had inhaled on that day. 

The good news is that there are carpet options that include public disclosures of product content, for example, in the HPD Public Repository or Declare Product Database. The other piece of good news is that we have resources to help buyers select safer products. For example, our recently launched online education platform HomeFree Campus educates project teams about “Why Materials Matter” and how to ask for and prefer safer products. Our HomeFree Product Hazard Spectrum helps buyers choose flooring options that typically have safer material content. Once you know the product content or emissions, you can use Pharos and Data Commons tools connect chemicals with their associated human and environmental hazards. 

After ventilating the student housing building in Minneapolis, the city’s initially “high chemical readings” dropped. According to the Minnesota Daily article, the city’s inspections show the levels are now safe. Meanwhile, one of the workers who was initially sickened by the incident was an independent contractor and therefore ineligible for workers’ compensation for the symptoms he is still experiencing months later. This and future incidents are preventable. Safer selection of materials begins with product transparency. 


[1] EPA, 1991.Air and Radiation (6609J). “Indoor Air Facts No.4: Sick Building Syndrome” Factsheet” (https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-08/documents/sick_building_factsheet.pdf)

[2] MN Daily. 2019. “Chemical analysis finds potential health risks for former workers at the arrow” (https://mndaily.com/201203/news/ftprimeplace2/)

[3] chemicals found in testing of the carpet as cited in the MN Daily report included: ethyl hexanol and multicomponent solvents: “possibly naphtha, Stoddard solvent or petroleum distillate”. Naphtha, also known as Stoddard solvent is MDH chemical of high concern.