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Is Furniture Toxic? Unfortunately the answer to that question is often, yes. If you have furniture made of particle board or sofas made with synthetic fabrics and foam stuffing, you are breathing in toxic fumes. Every. Day.
Who knew that furniture could be toxic! Why are we living in these plastic boxes (our homes) with toxic things inside them? It is so crazy. I long to get back to nature, to live in a cob, straw bale, or log home. To have natural furniture, to have natural flooring. Sigh, I wish that was the norm.
In this article we will look at the toxins in foam furniture as well as furniture made with manufactured wood products. We will discuss the health hazards of these chemicals and what you can do to limit exposure. I will then recommend furniture companies that offer safe alternatives.
Since 1975, a California Flammability Standard (TB 117) made it mandatory for flame-retardant chemicals to be added to the foam within upholstered furniture. This standard was followed by manufacturers across the United States and Canada. It wasn’t until 2014 that this mandate was revised to say that chemicals were not needed, but it has not banned the use of many flame-retardant chemicals. Most of the residential furniture that is in our homes today has been treated with these toxic chemicals.
Furniture and products treated with flame-retardants include anything that has polyurethane foam within it. This includes sofas, baby car seats, crib mattresses, vehicle seating, baby changing pads, dog beds, ect.
A Duke University and UC Berkeley study found 85% of the couches tested contained chemical flame retardants. 41% contained chlorinated Tris (or TDCPP), while 17% contained the banned chemical pentaBDE (source).
In Europe, pentaBDE has been banned since 2004, with other countries phasing it out. Canada banned the use of pentaBDE in 2006, with the regulation being finalized in 2008. In 2009 the Parties of the Stockholm Convention for Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) decided to list commercial penta-BDE and commercial octa-BDE as POP substances.
TDCPP was removed from use on children’s pajamas in the 1970’s because it changed DNA, but was still being used on upholstered furniture. With the banning of pentaBDE’s, TDCPP has seen an increase in usage. The estimated global production in 1997 was 8000 tonnes. It has been listed as a carcinogen in California since 2011 (source).
Firemaster 550 contains 4 flame retardant ingredients that are known toxins or lack proper studies to prove they are safe.
The problem with these chemicals is that they leach out into the air and fall down to become part of household dust. This dust is then ingested by us and our children.
PentaBDE has been linked to decreased fertility, hormone disruption, and lowered IQ in humans. In animal studies, pentaBDE’s have been shown to cause developmental and neurological disorders, as well as reproductive, hormonal and thyroid disorders. (source). Levels of pentaBDE’s have been detected in the blood of children and mothers. California children have the highest levels, up to 9 times higher than other US states, and up to 100 times higher than children in Europe.
TDCPP has been associated with increased tumor rates in rats, and has been found to be a neurotoxin to brain cells (source). TDCPP has been found in household dust as well as in the air, and has been detected in human urine and semen.
Firemaster 550 has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor that can cause extreme weight gain (source).
Babies and toddlers are at a higher risk than adults because they ingest more dust by being lower to the floor and practicing hand-to-mouth behavior. Children have higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their mothers. These chemicals pass through the placenta to the fetus and then are passed through breast milk. We need to end this disturbing cycle! Every generation has more chemicals in their blood than the previous one.
What Can We do to Limit our Exposure?
Going out and buying new furniture is not an option for everyone. Luckily there are some simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure to flame-retardant chemicals.
- Vacuum often using a HEPA filter.
- Wet mop and damp dust.
- Wash hands frequently, especially before eating.
- Replace the foam cushions in your sofa with foam that has not been treated with flame-retardants.
If You are Purchasing New Furniture:
- Avoid buying products with a TB 117 label.
- Avoid furniture that is marketed as stain-resistant.
- Avoid PVC material and artificial leathers.
- Look for pieces that contain wool, cotton, polyester, or down, rather than polyurethane foam.
- Look for PBDE free furniture.
- Ask manufacturers if flame-retardants have been added to their products.
- Look for the new TB 117-2013 label which is mandatory as of January 2015. This allows furniture to be produced without added flame-retardants (but doesn’t ban their use).
- Speak up – tell manufacturers that you do not want flame-retardants in your furniture.
Furniture made of particleboard, fiberboard, and plywood often contain urea-formaldehyde glues. While particleboard is nice in the fact that it uses recycled timber or timber waste, it’s components can be very toxic. Formaldehyde based resins are used to bind the particles together. Formaldehyde is considered a likely human carcinogen and over time, it is released into the air from the particle board.
Formaldehyde is associated with nasal and brain cancers. Reactions include wheezing, eye irritation, skin allergies, chest tightness, nausea, and asthma (source).
What Can We do To Limit Our Exposure?
If you have furniture, flooring, or cabinets made of these pressed wood products:
- Increase ventilation, open windows and let fresh air in.
- Get houseplants that filter and clean the air (Read about houseplants as air filters).
- Ssealants can be applied to reduce the amount of formaldehyde that gets released. (Check out this safe, water-based sealer).
- Do not put pressed-board products near heat sources such as heaters or windows that get direct sun. Heat releases the formaldehyde into the air.
- Avoid high humidity in the home.
When Buying New Furniture:
- Look for furniture that is made of solid wood, metal or glass. (Recommended brands are below).
- Look for furniture using less-toxic glues. Pressed-wood products made with methylene diisocyanate (MDI) resin or phenol formaldehyde (PF) resin emit less formaldehyde.
- Exterior-grade plywood contains the least amount of formaldehyde.
Recommended Toxic-Free Furniture
- Crib Mattresses: Naturepedic offers Organic Crib Mattresses as well as changing pads and full-size mattresses. (Available on Amazon)
- Shelving and Storage Furniture: Way Basics Storage Furniture – made from recycled paperboard. No VOC’s or formaldehyde. (Available on Amazon)
- Mattresses: Brentwood Home makes organic and Eco-friendly mattresses that are free of fire-retardant chemicals. (Available on Amazon). They also make draperies, quilts, pillows and pet beds.
- Rockers and Cribs: Nurseryworks makes safe furniture for your nursery. (Available on Amazon). Babyletto is another brand that makes safe baby and nursery furniture. (Available on Amazon).
- CD and Audio Shelving: Decibel Designs makes uses formaldehyde free plywood. (Available on Amazon).
- Futons: Epic Furnishings has a US-made cotton filled futon mattress that comes with a solid wood frame. (Available on Amazon).
- Dining Tables and Chairs: Barn XO makes reclaimed, solid wood tables and benches. (Available on Amazon). Or IKEA has affordable, all-wood dining tables and chairs. (Also available on Amazon).
- Sofas and Chairs: There isn’t much for Eco-friendly couches and seating available on Amazon. The Ultimate Green Store carries a variety of non-toxic furniture options. Click the link to check it out:
Do you have any Eco-friendly furniture brands to recommend?