January 3, 2013
This morning, the furniture store came to pick up my new, super sexy, contemporary, sectional sofa, leaving me with an empty living room.
The couch arrived less than three weeks ago, wrapped in a lovely, pewter-colored, velvety fabric with a cool rounded “bump out” feature on one end that took place of one arm. I started planning for this sofa about a year ago when I decided that the sofa I bought on craigslist for $50 seven years ago had long been showing its age, with cat clawed arms and stained cushions. I was also feeling the need for an upgrade in style. I wanted to replace the overstuffed comfy set with something sleeker and more contemporary. I kept an eye on craigslist, prepared to pay somewhat more than my last couch for something updated. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted and after months of plowing through craigslist posts, decided that it was time to step up and purchase a new sofa. It was only the second piece of new furniture I have purchased in my lifetime (not counting my mattress). So you can imagine how excited I was.
I started looking around and finally settled on a couch at a locally owned furniture store nearby. I was familiar with issues of formaldehyde off-gassing from plywood used in cheaply made furniture, so I made a point to clarify with the sales rep (twice) that this couch featured a solid wood frame and no plywood. “Yes, solid wood.” I left feeling comfortable that while I’d spent more than I wanted to, I’d purchased a quality product that would last for years and be healthy and safe in my home.
The couch arrived a week before Christmas and within a couple of days I started to notice that my eyes and throat were burning when I sat on it for any length of time. I thought maybe it was just an initial off gassing, since it was brand new and that it would quickly pass. Simultaneously, I started noticing that I felt a bit spacey and even seemed to have trouble jumbling my words just a bit. I wanted to dismiss it as unrelated.
While I hoped the smell would quickly pass, I started researching online. Reading from others’ experiences, it seemed likely that I was reacting to either formaldehyde in a plywood or some other chemical VOCs from the foam, the flame retardants, glues or dyes in the fabric. I wanted it to all work out and reasoned that it couldn’t off gas for long, right? Aside from this, I was embarrassed. I felt like I should have known better.
Five days in, I called the company I bought the couch from to ask them about the smell. I was referred to the owner who assured me that he’d never received a complaint like that about the sofa and that they “sold a lot of them.” He was sure that it would go away and that I was probably more sensitive than most people. I asked him about the frame and he confirmed that there was plywood in the frame. I was frustrated that I’d been given incorrect information from the salesperson, but I decided to give it a little more time. I figured two weeks was a good benchmark. If in two weeks time, the smell was still as strong I would need to consider alternatives to keeping the couch.
In the meantime, I opened the windows to flush out the air every couple of days and borrowed an air purifier from a friend, hoping that would do the trick. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Each time that I sat on the couch for any length of time, I’d have the same reaction – red, burning eyes and throat. Whenever I walked into the living room, either first thing in the morning or when I’d come home I’d be overcome by what seemed like a noxious cloud.
I continued to research online and read things like “the chemicals found on couches are associated with neurological and reproductive problems, as well as cancer” and that according to a recent 2012 study that found that “chemicals made up roughly 10 percent of the weight of the entire cushion” on some couches. An article from the San Francisco Chronicle was helpful and alerted me to other possible chemicals in upholstered furniture including “Ethylene oxide, used in polyurethane foam and adhesives, a probable carcinogen that can also cause brain and nerve malfunctions.” Maybe my spaciness was not so unrelated after all.
I read further. “Hydrazine, a chemical used in textile dyes, is a probable carcinogen with a range of adverse health effects, and vinyl chloride, used in the making of some furniture, is a carcinogen that can cause liver damage with chronic exposure.” I also read that even for those without immediate violent reactions, there can be long-term effects, such as respiratory and heart ailments and cancer.
I’d read enough to be scared and take seriously the potential impact that my new couch might be having on my body. But what were my options. I’d spent a lot of money on this couch and had no reason to believe I’d be able to get my money back.
I consulted some friends and local experts including Lora Winslow, founder of the Naked Truth Project–a nonprofit that serves as a resource for nontoxic living and educating people about the links between human health and what we put on our bodies, in our bodies and in our homes–and Amanda Sears, Associate Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. Lora explained that toxins in the body accumulate and we never know what the exact tipping point is when the body says, “Enough” and responds by developing acute sensitivity to all chemicals.
Amanda and I talked about the prevalence and health risks associated with flame retardants, the usage of which has grown significantly over the past 30 years. I found two recent studies which identified the flame retardant, “Tris,” a suspected human carcinogen (banned for use in baby pajamas in the 1970s), as the most prevalent compound in couches tested (found in 41 – 52 % of them). Concentrations of the flame retardant chemicals in couches averaged 4 to 5 percent by weight, but some couches had over 11 percent. According to one of the studies, there are at least six different mixtures being used as flame retardants in furniture today. And the scientist went on to say that we know less about the health effects of these flame retardants than we do about previously-banned retardants. I’ll repeat that because it’s a lot of info to digest – we are using large amounts of chemicals in couches today that were banned for use in children’s clothing 40 years ago. Further, other chemicals that are being used have not even been fully tested to determine their effects on humans, adult or children.
**Important side note: flame retardants do not stay in the cushions. Over time, they break down and off-gas into the air, settling as dust on flat surfaces or the floor, providing one of the major routes of exposure to people
What scares me the most about all of this is that no one seems to have concrete evidence of the long term effects of exposure like this. But given what we do know, there’s good reason to be take it all very seriously.
I called the company I purchased the couch from and made arrangements for them to return the couch (minus a $100 restocking fee.)
Last night, I went to visit some of the local retailers that sell greener furniture options to see what I could learn. The owner of Endicott Home (known for its condo sized line of furniture and soon to be known for switching over their entire line of furniture to flame retardant-free cushions), suggested that my reaction was most likely not to the flame retardants, because they tend to not have a smell. He said I was likely reacting to formaldehyde in cheap plywood or chemical fabric treatments. He went on to explain that the effects of flame retardants in our furniture takes a bit more time as they break down from usage, get into the air and settle as dust on our floors and furniture. From here, our kids crawl on them or we touch them and they make their way into our bodies.
So where does this leave us?
We are all making the best decisions we can with the resources and information that we have available. I paid a significant amount for my couch (on sale) and it still made me sick. A better made, healthier alternative may cost twice as much, an amount that just doesn’t work for many budgets.
I’m beginning the search for my new couch a second time. I’m a bit more educated this time around and still hopeful that I will be able to find a couch that meets both my aesthetic desires as well as my environmental health ones. Having had a personal experience like this, I have renewed sympathies for those who suffer from chemical sensitivities. We may all be on a path towards the same if we don’t take serious steps to demand better from our furniture manufacturers – and quickly.
Some tips I learned along my brief journey:
- However tempting it is to buy that stylish, lower cost model, your health and the health of your family are not worth the risk.
- Buy used furniture if you can find it.
- Trust yourself – if you can smell chemicals and it’s affecting your eyes/throat, get rid of it. It’s likely doing nasty things to your body. This is a tough one, I know. No one wants to be “that person.” But our health is much more important.
- Buy upholstered furniture in the summer months when you can have windows open regularly.
- Purchase a floor model that has likely done a bit of it’s off gassing or ask the company to store the piece unwrapped in their warehouse for a couple of months. Even so, if you are buying a cheaply made model or a model that has been treated with flame retardants (most models today are) it is likely to off-gas and emit toxins over time.
- Dust your home (with a wet rag) and vacuum with a HEPA filter to remove flame retardant dust from your home on a regular basis.
- Do whatever you can to avoid buying furniture made with cheap plywood. Most furniture today includes plywood – the difference is where it comes from and what it’s made of. If it’s a greener option, the manufactures website will tell you that. If it doesn’t, it’s safe to assume it’s not the good kind.
Greener furniture options
Important things to look for:
Non-toxic, water based glues used to assemble the frame and the cushions
Natural fiber cushions or soy-based foam alternatives (30% soy foam appears to be the highest readily available option today with remaining foam being polyurethane, a petroleum product which has shown to be problematic itself).
Solid hardwood frames and plywood made without formaldehyde. Ideally, they are FSC or SFI certified wood products, made in the USA with water based adhesives
Water-based stains and low VOC sealers and finishes
No flame retardants (this is harder to find. See Endicott Furniture)
EcoHome Studio – stocks two lines of eco-friendly furniture including Lazar’s Earth DesignsEndicott Home – recently transitioned their entire line of furniture models that use no flame retardants. In addition, the plywoods used in their models are made in the US with water based, non-toxic glues.
Cabot House – carries Century Furniture brand
Simply Home in Falmouth – carries the Lee Industries “Natural Lee” line of furniture. http://leeindustries.com/
Young’s Furniture in South Portland – A large portion of their products have been produced with eco-friendly
elements and sustainable materials
National Retailers carrying greener furniture lines:
Heather Chandler is owner & publisher of The SunriseGuide.