Non-obvious dangers


When I hear someone -- and in the case I am thinking, of, someone who works in the woods nearly every day as a land surveyor -- saying that the greatest danger he sees in the woods is leaves, I pay attention. This person is speaking my language.

It’s not that I enjoy worrying about things. It’s that I enjoy worrying about the right things. The right things to worry about are the ones that represent a non-trivial risk, and are ones that with some modicum of insight I can do something about.

Very often the things we should truly worry about are the nonobvious ones.

An obvious danger is a chainsaw, and if I’m giving a friend some chainsaw tips I will warn them about how a chainsaw it can hurt or kill them.

A nonobvious -- to the novice -- danger is the tree. There is a reason why a rotten or unstable tree or tree limb -- not a chainsaw -- is called a widow maker. Yet, the chainsaw unfairly gets horror movies made about it.

This surveyor I was talking with, Clark, works in Massachusetts and is a friend of a friend. Widow makers were number two on his list of forest dangers, but leaves were number one. Why?

Slips and falls.

That’s right -- I just looked it up, and according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "Slips, trips, and falls constitute the majority of general industry accidents. They cause 15 percent of all accidental deaths, and are second only to motor vehicles as a cause of fatalities."

A light frost or rain can turn a gentle slope in the woods into the equivaltent of a sloped sheet of ice -- only worse, because you’re usually expecting to fall on a sheet of ice. Also, leaves harbor mice and chipmunks and small rodents harbor deer ticks -- much more so than deer. Deer ticks spread Lyme disease and other serious illnesses.

Out of respect for non-obvious dangers underfoot, I’d like to talk about carpeting.

Question: what’s the difference between a track-off mat, which is designed to collect dirt and dust that you carry in from outdoors, and carpeting?

Answer: nothing. There is no difference.

OK, I am being unfair to trackoff mats. As far as I can tell, most trackoff mats are designed to be entirely cleanable and release nearly all of their dust and dirt, whereas this is impossible with carpeting. Have you ever removed used carpeting from a building? You can vouch for this.

The dirtiness of carpeting is only one thing I have against it. Here are three more.

1) Waste. Almost four billion pounds of carpeting were thrown out last year in the U.S. alone. That’s a huge part of our waste stream, and it’s a huge resource drain, with carpeting being very energy- and water-intensive to produce. The carpeting industry has made landfill diversion a focus over the last decade and 5 percent of that wound up recycled, but they’ve been hard at work on this for years and they’re only at 5 percent -- which is actually down from the previous year.

2) Non-stick chemicals. Perfluorochemicals repel water very well due to their low surface tensions. Water and oils with higher surface tensions bead up and roll off. They work in nonstick pots and it works in carpeting treatments like Scotchgard. They also reduce cleaning and make carpets last longer. They are so important to carpeting that it’s almost impossible to buy carpeting without them.

However, what makes dirt not stick to PFCs makes PFCs not stick to carpet fibers. After a couple of shampoos those chemicals become widely distributed in the environment. They are also virtually indestructible, have been seen to build up through the food chain, and have been linked to a number of health problems in animals, including weight loss, thyroid disease, immune suppression, and developmental and reproductive problems.

3) Flame retardants. Carpeting is made of stuff that burns, and so virtually all carpeting contains chemicals added to stop it from burning. Although some safer alternatives are being specified by green designers, many of the flame retardants that you’ll get with carpeting are persistent and bioaccumulative, and cause a range of health problems in animals.

This latter danger is amplified when you go beneath the surface to the cushion used under carpeting in homes. If the product contains recycled polyurethane foam padding, it may contain outdated and particularly toxic flame retardant chemistry.

What are your hard-fought lessons on non-obvious dangers -- indoors and out? Please share your thoughts online at at

Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director for BuildingGreen, Inc., which is based in Brattleboro and online at Tristan lives on a farm in Halifax.


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