Q: My wife and I are expecting our first child and have just bought our first house. We want to clean the carpets before we move in, but we don’t want chemicals that could harm our new baby when she’s crawling on the floor. What criteria should we have for the best nontoxic carpet cleaners? —David Wytmar, Chicago, Illinois
A: You are wise to be concerned about your baby’s exposure to toxic chemical residues in carpets. The dangers of conventional carpet cleaners have been well publicized in the last few years since John Travolta and Kelly Preston’s two-year old son, Jett, was hospitalized after inhaling fumes from carpet cleaning agents.
The toxic ingredient likely to be found in most conventional carpet cleaners is the solvent perchloroethylene, although other toxins, such as formaldehyde, are present as well. The safest carpet cleaners are those with a baking soda base. And, frankly, there’s no reason why you can’t use just plain baking soda for a healthy, nontoxic carpet cleaner. Sprinkle it liberally over a dry carpet (use several pounds for a nine-by-twelve room). Wait an hour or more, then vacuum. This will remove musty smells.
You can also rent a carpet steam cleaner, but don’t use the carpet shampoo that comes with it. The steam alone will remove a fair amount of dust and dirt, or you can use a mixture of one to two cups white vinegar and 2 1/2 gallons of water. Immediately after steam cleaning, heat the room and use a fan to completely dry the carpet and padding so mold doesn’t grow.
My best advice, though, is to remove the carpet and replace it with a hardwood, tile, natural linoleum, or other natural hard-surface floor that’s easier to maintain.
Debra Lynn Dadd is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home, Safe Home (Putnam, 1997).