Once snubbed by schools as a cause of indoor air pollution, carpet has made a comeback in recent years as the floor covering of choice in education facilities ranging from preschools to colleges.

Annual reports published by American School & University magazine, for example, show that the amount of carpeted floor space in newly constructed elementary and secondary schools rose from 31 percent in 2004 to 36 percent in 2006, including a big spike in 2005 when 54 percent of the floors in newly constructed K-12 schools were carpeted.

Jan/san distributors say they’ve noticed the overall jump.

“I am absolutely seeing more carpet in schools,” says Fritz Gast, executive vice president of P.B. Gast & Sons in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Architects and people who design schools are recommending carpet and spec-ing it in.”

One reason for carpet’s resurgence is that new technology and modernized cleaning equipment and practices have done much to reduce the danger of carpet collecting and then spreading germs and allergens. Carpet has long been valued in schools for comfort and aesthetics — it’s simply more pleasant to walk, sit or recline on a cushioned surface than on a hard one. But health officials and school administrators alike have worried that carpet’s potential to adversely affect indoor air quality (IAQ) outweighs its many benefits, especially in densely populated environments such as schools. Then, in 2001, a study conducted by Cornell University found that properly maintained carpet could actually enhance a school’s IAQ and, by extension, contribute to a healthier school environment.

As a result, distributors report that cleaning products such as spotters, as well as vacuums, extractors and other machines designed to maintain today’s modern carpet, are increasingly in demand for use in schools. This is especially true of green-cleaning supplies and practices, which are especially beneficial to younger building occupants.

A Healthy Student Body
The Cornell study found that today’s carpets offer a variety of healthful benefits in a school environment. They emit fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than their predecessors once did, for example; in some cases new carpets actually emit fewer VOCs than some types of vinyl and other floor choices. This is an important consideration for schools because children are more susceptible than adults to health problems associated with VOCs — a younger child’s smaller body mass correlates to a higher “dose” of any absorbed VOCs, and his or her shorter stature increases exposure to VOCs emitted by a ground-level source.

As for carpet’s reputation as a dirty sink of dust, mold, bacteria and allergens such as dust-mite waste, the study found that while it was true that improperly maintained carpet could pose health hazards, carpet which was properly cleaned did not contribute appreciably to indoor air pollution. In fact, the study found that carpet actually trapped many contaminants and kept them from being released into the airspace of, say, a classroom filled with students.

“There are two sides to that coin,” cautions Allen Rathey, president of Boise, Idaho-based InstructionLink/JanTrain Inc. “Anything that can hold dust can release it when agitated. Particularly a vacuum with a beater brush, or when you walk across that surface, invariably there’s dust that is produced from a surface that contains dust. It may or may not be more than a hard floor would produce, depending on what’s on the floor.”

Cash-strapped school districts may also run their numbers and decide carpet offers a money-saving benefit as well. Rathey, though, notes that he has seen differing figures on which types of flooring are most cost-efficient, both at the time of installation and throughout the floor’s lifetime of maintenance.

“I think it’s fair to say that both [carpet and hard] surfaces require maintenance, and that’s a matter of frequency and the types of soil being brought in,” he says.

Many of the other ways in which carpet can provide benefits to a school environment, though, such as improving safety, adding insulation and enhancing acoustics, are not in dispute. Chief among carpet’s contributions to student safety is the role it plays in preventing slip-and-fall accidents in schools. National statistics show that these accidents (at home, school and elsewhere) account for one out of every three visits that children make to emergency rooms each year. To prevent them, some schools use carpet even in heavily trafficked hallways and on stairways; on rainy or snowy days, the wettest carpet is not nearly as slippery as water that has pooled on the surface of a hard floor. And carpet absorbs more than just moisture and sound. It also absorbs shock, so that when a student does fall on carpet he or she is less likely to suffer a severe injury.

Starting Fresh, Staying Clean
All of these benefits are compromised if carpet is not properly maintained. And that starts on day one — when carpet is selected and installed. The Carpet and Rug Institute, for instance, offers carpet-specification guidelines and on its Web site advises that schools use carpet with “a low profile, densely tufted, tight loop construction.”

Rathey notes that ventilation is also a key consideration when schools install or clean carpet — or any flooring system.

“It’s critically important that any kind of floor that gets installed is allowed a period of ventilation for any out-gassing from adhesives or the surface,” he says. “Ventilation is something the cleaning industry doesn’t often address, but it’s so important for workers…and for students who spend hours in closed rooms.”

The current classroom standard for an acceptable ventilation rate, as set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, is 10 cubic feet per minute of outdoor air per person. Cleaning professionals should know the rates of ventilation in each of the buildings and classrooms where they work, Rathey adds.

Of course, the best way to keep a carpet clean and dry is to prevent it from getting dirty or wet in the first place. For this reason, distributors say entry-way mats are a crucial first step for enhancing the performance and cleanability of carpets located deeper in the building.

“You can extend your cleaning cycles because you’re not tracking as much in,” explains Keith Schneringer, marketing manager at WAXIE Sanitary Supply in San Diego.

When carpets do need to be cleaned, Rathey says cleaning professionals can look to similarities shared by maintenance programs for hard and soft floors. Just as hard floors need to be dust-mopped, damp-mopped, scrubbed and stripped, carpets need to be vacuumed, cleaned and undergo pile-lifting and extraction, he says.

In addition, Schneringer recommends green products and equipment in order to accommodate the special health needs of children.

“You’re talking about chemicals but you’re also talking about equipment and cleaning process,” he says. “Get as low-VOC product as possible. Use carpet-cleaning chemicals that have been certified by agencies such as Green Seal and Greenguard. Use vacuum cleaners and carpet extraction equipment that have been approved by the Carpet and Rug Institute. Do your cleaning during off-hours to allow enough time for the carpet to dry and air to circulate. And remember that the cleaner and drier you can keep things, the better off you are.”

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer based in Rockford, Ill.