You might know what’s lurking under your couch, but do you know what’s in your couch? It’s a question more and more people are asking as concerns about flame retardants, formaldehyde, triclosan, and other components in furniture increase.
In part, that’s because of consumer awareness: More people are talking about the potential toxins in their furniture. It’s also because the industry itself is starting to rethink the ways it protects consumers, and how it can meet flammability standards without giving people a dose of chemicals that could cause permanent health problems along the way.
If you’ve been paying attention to environmental news, you may have heard that furniture companies often add various flame retardant chemicals, triclosan (to prevent microbial growth), and formaldehyde to foam furniture products and certain others in order to protect consumers from the risk of fire, mold and bacterial contamination. These well-meaning steps are also designed to align with legal standards requiring furniture to be resistant to flame and contamination — historically, furnishings didn’t have these safeguards in place, and could become dangerous in a fire (in some cases, they could be the fuel that let a smoldering cigarette or other object catch flame).
While protecting consumers from fires is a definite plus, we’re starting to learn that the chemicals used to do it may be hazardous. That’s why California adjusted its standards (and, by extension, so did the rest of the nation, as many manufacturers produce goods to California’s exacting specifications so they can be sold anywhere, rather than making separate product lines just for the Golden State) to make it easier for furniture manufacturers to meet them while still protecting consumers and, at the same time, avoiding the use of chemicals. However, California’s new law doesn’t mean that furniture manufacturers won’t use hazardous chemicals in their furniture. It just means they have the option of not using them.
Which brings us back to the original question: How do you tell if your furniture is safe, and should you get rid of your furniture and replace it?
If your furniture was made before 2005, you might be in trouble. Pre-2005 foam furniture may contain PBDEs, which were very good at preventing fires, but unfortunately also very toxic. Furniture made after that point may contain other flame retardant chemicals if it includes a tag indicating that it meets TB-117, California’s former flame retardant standard, especially if it was made out of foam. The new standard, TB-2013, may indicate that your furniture is safe, but the only way to find out is to get into contact with the manufacturer.
Some furniture makers are very forthcoming about the sources of their materials and the chemicals they contain. Unfortunately for you, they’re usually most helpful when their products are safe, not when they aren’t. A mystery couch might remain just that — and it’s important to note that manufacturers may mislead you when it comes to the precise components used in their products.
The best way to make sure your furniture is safe is to buy it from a manufacturer that dedicates itself to the production of furniture that meets state standards while avoiding toxins. These manufacturers use fillers like wool and horsehair instead of foam — and it’s going to cost you, because these components are more expensive. Depending on the firm, external upholstery may also be made out of similar high quality materials without petrochemical treatments.
If you’re not too pleased at the thought of having to buy new furniture, there’s still hope. You can opt to replace the foam inside your furniture and reupholster it (this includes mattresses, too). If your furniture has good bones and you’re attached to it, there’s no reason to get rid of it. Lots of reputable furniture stores offer this option, and can discuss flame retardant-free upholstering choices with you. They may cost a little extra than replacing with conventional foam, but you may appreciate the peace of mind.
Also, if you can’t take any of these measures right now, be aware that the biggest danger with flame retardants is that they work their way out of the couch and settle in household dust. For a more immediate solution to your concerns, keep your home wiped down, consider investing in an air filter and make sure you wash your hands well before handling food.