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Readers occasionally send me suggestions for furniture that they consider safe because they are free of flame retardants.  Flame retardants are among the most harmful of chemicals found in traditional furniture but unfortunately, they are not the only chemicals of concern.


Fire retardants became common additives to polyurethane foam used in furniture in response to California flammability standard TB117 that was adopted in 1975.  U.S. manufactures adopted the standard for products sold all over the country so that they would not have to have a separate inventory for California.  Flame retardants have been linked to adverse health effects including cancer, lower IQ, learning disorders, hormone disruption and reduced fertility.


California revised their standard in 2014 to allow manufacturers to meet flammability requirements without chemical flame retardants.  There are now hundreds of couches and other upholstered furniture options that don’t use harmful chemical flame retardants in their polyurethane foam.  Keep in mind that these chemicals are not banned, they are just no longer required.


This is an important step in the right direction but it is not enough.  There are many other chemicals of concern in traditional upholstered furniture.


Polyurethane Foam


Polyurethane foam is made by reacting polyols, a type of complex alcohol, and diisocyanates, which are a petroleum byproduct.  The most common source of diiscyanate used in foam is TDI, or toluene diiscyanate.   In its raw form TDI is a carcinogen.  Once reacted it is inert but it can still offgas.1 


There are many potential additives to polyurethane foam.  Manufacturers often consider their additive ingredients proprietary and do not disclose them.  Formaldehyde is not usually added to foam but it can be a byproduct of chemical reactions or from adhesives used on the foam.


Upholstered furniture such as sofas and reclining chairs can be a significant source of VOCs.  One study tested a range of large furniture and appliances and found that the sofa emitted the highest level of VOCs.


Other Furniture Components


Treated Fabric

According to O Ecotextiles, all stain repellent finishes are based on fluorotelmer chemistry, which means it pertains to chemicals which become perfluorocarbons (PFCs) when released into the environment.  There are newer stain repellent finishes that are claiming to be safer and less bioaccumulative.  Though safer than older formulations, there is little human data to support just how safe they are.


Leather can be processed using hundreds of harmful substances including chromium, formaldehyde, phthalates and heavy metals.


Adhesives can contain solvents such a benzene, toluene, styrene or acetone.

Composite Wood

Particleboard, plywood, MDF are often sources of formaldehyde.


Stains and finishes can be sources of VOCs including acetone, methylene chlorine, benzene and toluene.


If you are looking for upholstered furniture that is safe and non-toxic, visit Debra’s List.


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