Musings from the floor: My experience with an off-gassing couch

Heather Chandler
January 3, 2013

couchThis 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)

 

Local retailers:

EcoHome Studio – stocks two lines of eco-friendly furniture including Lazar’s Earth Designs
Endicott 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:

Ikea
Crate & Barrel
Pottery Barn
Viesso

 

Resources

http://www.healthandenvironment.org/tddb

http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2012/toxic-couches

http://www.preventharm.org/Content/130.php

http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/What-s-in-furniture-It-s-enough-to-make-you-sick-3237613.php#page-1

http://www.greenerlives.net/2column.html

http://www.komonews.com/news/local/Study-Chemicals-found-in-couches-could-make-you-sick-181304301.html

Heather Chandler

Heather Chandler

Heather Chandler is owner & publisher of The SunriseGuide.

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19 Responses to “Musings from the floor: My experience with an off-gassing couch”

  1. David Donovan January 5, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    Very well written and informative.

  2. Susy January 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    Thanks Heather. I have been investigating buying a new couch for a little while and was learned that not only can unhealthy couches make families unhealthy, but they can cause illness in pets, some of whom (mine included) spend a large majority of their time on our couches, and when not there, are traveling and eating at floor level around our homes. Some researchers are linking the significant uptick in hyperthyroidism in cats to chemicals used in flame retardants and couch materials. I have investigated chemical-free couches and talked to Furnature in Watertown, MA http://furnature.clickforward.com who’ve seen a huge increase in popularity of their furniture despite the $6,000 for starters price tag. Still not sure what I’m going to do, but good of you to spread the word.

    • Lora Winslow January 8, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      Thank you Susy for raising this incredibly important point. Animals are much smaller than us, so their threshold for chemicals is significantly lower. The effects of these chemicals on animals is often overlooked, so we appreciate you mentioning it.

      On a related note, it is equally important to take caution when there are babies and small children in the house. Similar to pets, children spend a lot of time on the floor and on the couch, put things in their mouths, and have a much smaller body mass than adults. They are extremely vulnerable to these types of chemicals.

  3. Paula March 9, 2013 at 4:26 am #

    Heather,
    Thank you for sharing your story.
    I am sitting on my new (3 week old) couch, crying, reading your blog. I happened upon this blog because I am trying to figure out what to do.
    My new couch was delivered 3 weeks ago while I was at work. I was so excited because this is the first brand new piece of furniture we’ve purchased in 18 years! (We have 5 boys, now grown. :) Like you, I purchased my last couch from Craigslist. I walked in the door after work, that day, sat down on the couch, and was overcome by a chemical smell. My husband, sons, and mother couldn’t smell it.
    My sister and best friend came over to see my new couch and I asked them if they could smell it. My friend, who sold furniture many years ago, said she could only faintly smell it. She told me it’s probably off-gassing and is possibly formaldehyde. I’d never heard of off-gassing. The chemical smell wasn’t bothering anyone but me.
    Two days later, my throat was so sore and raw, I couldn’t breathe through my nose, and I felt awful. I went to the doctor and wound up on meds. I told the doctor that I think the chemical smell from the couch is making me sick, and he agreed it was possible.
    Later that day, I called Ashley Furniture, where I purchased the couch. The person I spoke to told me I had to leave a voicemail for the district manager. The warehouse (not the district manager) finally called me back 3 days later asking when they could schedule a pick up for the couch. I asked again about the chemical and the girl said they don’t put chemicals on their furniture. She stated again that they would come get the couch, and order me a new one, which would take several weeks. I told her I had to think about what to do.
    I decided to go to the store and talk with the manager to see if I could find out what chemical is on my couch, and see if he had any suggestions. He was actually nice and listened to me. He stated they don’t “treat” their furniture but that there are many different manufacturers used in producing the furniture and each manufacturer uses different chemicals. He went on to say that there was no way to know which manufacturer made what component of the couch and what chemical they used. He suggested opening the windows and airing out the couch. It is a Pottery Barn style couch, with deep, thick foam cushions and cotton duck fabric. I do not know anything about the wood frame. I asked the manager what alternatives he could offer me, if in a few weeks or months I still can’t tolerate the couch. He offered me a store credit. It wasn’t feasible to open the windows at that time. The weather is supposed to be a little warmer this weekend so I will try airing the house, but I’m not confident this is going to solve the problem. I also cannot spray the couch with anything, or burn candles or incense, as I am sensitive to those odors, as well.
    At this point, I made baking soda sachets and placed them around the cushions. I also covered the couch with blankets, but the smell is still coming through. To make things worse, I sleep on the couch at night, (long story :). The medication has run its course, and this week I am feeling very dizzy and nauseas. When not at home, it takes awhile, but I do start to feel better. Mondays I feel worse after being exposed for two days over the weekend. Sitting here, on the couch, this evening, I am so dizzy and upset and I’ve only been home a few hours.
    I could have them come and take the couch, but I’m not sure if I should ask them to store it for a few months until it finishes off-gassing, if I should buy a different couch, or press to get my money back. I’m worried that if I buy a different couch, it could have the same issues. I do not believe this store sells “green” furniture. This couch was a substantial purchase for me and I can’t afford to let the couch go, but I can’t keep something that is making me this sick. I still love the style of this couch but at this point, the couch I thought I was going to love, I am starting to hate.
    I’m sorry this is so long, but I was so surprised to find someone who had the same issue. Thank You

    • Barnaby August 14, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

      You just described the exact sofa and chair I purchased at Ashley Furniture 2 weeks ago, the toxic smell is unbearable. I complained and they are sending me a new chair to try out to see if I got what they think is a “bad batch of foam” that didn’t “cure right” in the manufacturing process. I can’t sit on the furniture without my throat constricting and burning, my nose aching, my lungs burning, a headache, and a foul taste on my tongue. I paid nearly $2,000 for this furniture. I love the looks, the comfort, the style, it’s just unbearable to have in my house, it is literally making me sick.

      • Barnaby August 14, 2013 at 11:38 pm #

        I should also add, I have even tried leaving the chair outside in the fresh air to try to help get rid of the smell. It’s like poking a dragon with a stick, it seems to intensify the effect.

    • Janel June 19, 2014 at 7:10 am #

      I’m so sorry to hear about your issues with the new couch. I had similar issues with a new high end sterns and foster mattress my husband and I purchased last fall. Same as you, I had dizzy headed feeling, sore throat and even worse, my eyes burned and the lids itched and swelled up like you wouldn’t believe! I went to the er the morning after sleeping on it and they told me it was an allergic reaction. Having been to a Halloween party the night before, I figured it must have been something in someone’s costume that I brushed up against. However, my problem did not go away, I worsened to the point that the ye dr diagnosed blepharitis in my eyes. It wasn’t until one night I slept on the couch because I didn’t want to disturb my husband with a restless night I was having and noticed somewhat of an improvement the next day. We tried airing out the set in fresh air several times and covering with enclosed plastic casings to no avail. Ended up selling it as the store was uncooperative about a refund. I lost 300. But it was such a relief to get rid of the source of my torment. Of course it was Aaron painful eye opener to the risks of chemicals in furniture and we are on a very tight budget so a very stressful situation in many ways, but you can’t put a price on your health. You only get one body in this life! Oh yes you might try taking colostrum by Symbiotics to boost your immune system or try charcoal felt under the cushions..the kind the military uses to combat chemicals in warfare. That was my next move, but ultimately I decided to get rid of the mattresss as I would always feel as if I was doing something harmful to my body by sleeping on it every night. The company I found is called Nirvana Safe Haven and a lovely woman named Daliyah was very helpful with info. Maybe she can assist you…I forget the web address but number us 1-800-968-9355. Best wishes!

    • Stephanie July 26, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

      I am having the same experience with my new furniture. I have a headache, my head feels like it’s in a vise, and I’m nauseous. I had no idea that I was sensitive to chemicals. I’ve never had an allergy or a reaction to anything in my environment. I will have to return the sofa – 20% restocking fee plus delivery charge. I feel I have no choice. Now I’m concerned that I won’t ever be able to buy new furniture.

  4. Scott August 10, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    We purchased a Pottery Barn sectional and love seat, and I have been miserable. My eyes water and burn, my throat hurts, and I feel nauseous. I called PB, and the woman was very nice and said they would give us our money back. We will probably be sending it back in the next 2 weeks.

  5. suzan gifford October 21, 2013 at 9:40 pm #

    i just bought my ashley furniture, I’ve only had it one week and it smells awful.. i love this furniture its so comfortable but im not sure if i can handle this smell.. im going to air out my house every day possible to see if it helps.. I’m like you ive waited 14 years for furniture and its pretty sad you cant buy something that won’t kill you. im so hoping this goes away.

  6. Chris December 20, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    We are having this exact same issue with a new couch we just purchased from a discount furniture store. I found your blog post when doing a google search. Do you know of any companies outside of Main that offer Greener furniture options?

  7. Heather January 31, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    Thanks for your post. There are a few national retailers listed in the resource list above. You may also want to go to the websites for some of the manufacturers listing: Lazar’s Earth Designs, Century Furniture, and Lee Industries “Natural Lee” line. The sites should be able to give you a list of local stores.

  8. Marti mast February 22, 2014 at 9:41 am #

    We bought our couch and chair from Rooms to Go several weeks ago. I have been short of breath..nose running and coughing ever since. The smell makes my eyes water.

  9. tessa March 18, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    Bought a kivik couch from Ikea. The smell is still overpowering. I have burning eyes, nausea and I even fainted upon sitting on it for 30 minutes. My dogs will not go near it.
    Thanks Ikea, they are picking it up and returning my money.

  10. Elizabeth April 28, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

    I have been smelling a gassy smell on and off for over a year, I thought it was our condo we lived in or the expressway that we are closely located to. We moved and the smell has reappeared, so I decided to investigate and it is the sofa! I am so angry after reading this article. I emailed Sklar Peppler to see if they will return it. Thank you for the information.

  11. gloria May 5, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

    We have our 4th new recliner since June of 2013. The first two smelled so strongly of chemicals that the nationally branded chain took them back. Chair #3 arrived in the wrong fabric, so never came into our home. Chair #4 has been in our home for less than 2 weeks, and it grows more offensive with each day. None of the smelly chairs seemed to give off any offensive odors in the store, but began to off gas as soon as they were brought into our home. I’m sure it’s warmer and more enclosed in our house than in the store or warehouse, which is a catalyst for the off gassing. I have the same issues with burning eyes, stuffy sinuses, etc, as previous posters have listed. I actually can smell the chair on my clothes and body after sitting in it for a short time. I even smell the chemicals on my pillow when I wake at night. I am entirely frustrated and disgusted with the whole matter. The store has had a large chunk of my money for 11 plus months, and I still don’t have an acceptable recliner. We will call again tomorrow to schedule another pick up, and take the refund that was offered to us earlier.

  12. Tania May 16, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    I see a lot of post saying Ashley Furniture, I’ve recently purchases a living room set from them as well. And like all of you, it has this awful smell that won’t go away! However I haven’t had any physical reactions to the smell (burning eyes, throat, headache, etc.) But now I’m very concerned about what the long term affects are going to be from this toxic furniture!

  13. Lois June 20, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

    I will be 86 next week and my Wonderful son bought me a great Recliner…It was delivered a few days ago and proved to be quite comfortable and looks real nice in my living room…After sitting in it a little while I felt a little Dizzy but felt maybe it was I wasnt used to sitting with my legs elevated for any length of time…Well the feelingg has not gotten any better but when I told my Family about it they said it was all in my head because I had looked it up on the computer…I have to pride myself with excelent health being my old age but since I got the chair I must say I am feeling very weak…Things I always did easily now have become a chore…I also got a sore throat and my eyes burned…I dont know what to do now…I dont want my son to feel bad about buying the chair for me as he has always been very good to me,but I feel keeping this chair is making me sick…I just wish the family would understand..What a shame we cant even enjoy anything new now a days…Crazy World…Oh for the Good Old days…

    • Jerri July 14, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

      Don’t worry, you’re son will understand in the end, since you’re obviously very grateful for the gesture and think it looks and feels nice. Of course, you’re not crazy (it’s not all in your head). Like you said, the world is crazy.

      Just see if it can be returned. If not, see if your son or another relative could just take it to their house “to see if you get better”. And when you get better (after airing out the house), you can let them know that there’s no way you can have it in your house, even though you appreciate it.

      Your health is too important! You’ve got to get it out of your house ASAP!

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