Toxic flame retardants in upholstered furniture have been a hot topic lately because they cause an array of health problems, from decreased memory and thyroid problems to birth defects and cancer. A lot of people have heard about the problems associated with flame retardants but there are many unanswered questions, such as where and why they are used, how we are exposed to them, how we can reduce exposure to them, and what laws govern them. This post answers these questions and provides ways and products you can use to reduce your exposure to toxic flame retardants in upholstered furniture.
Changes to law governing flame retardants in upholstered furniture
If you interested in the story of how flame retardants in upholstered furniture came about read the “Key Flame Retardant Law is About to Change” guest post written by my husband, Bill Webb, who is a business litigation attorney. Bill has recently updated the post with information about changes to California law referred to as TB117 that motivated many manufacturers to use flame retardants in upholstered furniture. The primary change in this law involves replacing an open fire 12-second test for upholstered furniture filling with a smolder test for upholstered furniture covers, which will reduce or even (we hope) eliminate the need for flame retardants.
While it is great news that California updated the law, we will still be exposed to flame retardants in upholstered furniture for some time, for several reasons. First, the effective date of the law has been moved back to January 1, 2015. Second, not everybody can afford to replace all their furniture at once. Also, some manufacturers might still use some flame retardants in upholstered furniture – of lesser quality – to comply with the new smolder test. I have talked to a number of manufacturers about whether they will have to make any changes to comply with the updated law and the bottom line is that they do not have enough information yet to know that. So before we get rid of flame retardants in upholstered furniture from our homes, how should we protect ourselves from the toxicity of flame retardants?
How flame retardants in upholstered furniture enter our bodies
Before we talk about the reduction of exposure to flame retardants in upholstered furniture, it is important to understand how they enter our bodies. By the way, once they do so, they will stay there for years. They love fat tissue and are thus found even in breast milk. They also do not break down in nature easily. Flame retardants are semi-volatile compounds, which means that furniture “sheds” tiny particles that settle into dust. What do you think that dust you see in your house is made of? Some of it is dead skin cells but some of it is toxic flame retardants. We then inhale or eat the dust (http://greensciencepolicy.org/node/334). Crawling babies and toddlers who spend a lot of time on the floor have a much higher concentration of flame retardants in their blood (http://www.ewg.org/research/fire-retardants-toddlers-and-their-mothers).
Ways to reduce exposure to flame retardants in upholstered furniture
Get Rid of the Dust
When you dust, make sure that you use damp cloth so the dust particles containing flame-retardants do not fly up into the air. Vacuum with a HEPA filter vacuum (such as with this one from the Green Nest store). When I researched vacuums, I learned that it is important to have a vacuum that seals dust inside (email me and I will tell you which HEPA vacuum I love). Mop the floors in your house regularly.
Less is more
It is easier to clean the house when you have less stuff. Also less stuff means less potential to shed flame-retardants and off-gas volatile compounds. If you do not need something take it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
Wash your hands
Wash your hand frequently, especially before you eat, so you do not ingest the dust on your hands.
Flame retardant-free upholstered furniture to buy
Most upholstery furniture is made with polyurethane foam filling. As polyurethane foam is made from petroleum, you can probably imagine three things – it is toxic, unsustainable, and highly flammable. Most manufacturers who use polyurethane foam utilize flame-retardants to pass the flammability test. Thus, I recommend upholstered furniture that uses 100% natural latex for filling, organic cotton or hemp fabric for covers and a wool barrier to pass the flammability test. Wool acts as a natural flame retardant. In general, polyurethane furniture is cheaper. However, I have seen very expensive furniture made of polyurethane foam. And if you consider all the health benefits you will be gaining, environmental goodwill you will be making, and the fact that natural latex is a material that lasts longer that polyurethane foam without sagging, you will know you are getting a great value. Here are a couple of places where you can buy furniture free of polyurethane foam, flame retardants, and other toxins.
This is a family-owned business that makes upholstery furniture, bed frames, mattresses, pillows for people with extreme chemical sensitivities, and the like. So there are no questionable chemicals in their furniture whatsoever. The furniture filling is natural rubber Dunlop latex (the highest quality latex) blend and they carry a wide selection of organic upholstery covers. They can make custom furniture or sell you material for you to make or re-haul your furniture. All the wood is solid and wood finishes are non-toxic. For more information on the great quality materials they use, go to http://www.furnature.com/furniture-ingredients-faqs.html. When researching this post, I telephoned Furnature and spoke with one of the owners, Fred Shapiro. He is 85 years old and works 6 days a week because he loves what he does. I was really impressed with the level of his knowledge of chemicals that make us sick and how to avoid them. Fred sounded in full control of supplied materials. He generously offered a 5 percent discount to people who mention my name (Irina Webb). (For the purpose of full disclosure, I will get a small referral fee if you mention my name; my primary focus is to find and recommend non-toxic products but if I am offered commissions along the way for products I believe in, I do not refuse them; they help defray the expenses of this blog.) Lastly, Furnature will ship anywhere in the US. To see their products, go to furnature.com
EcoBalanza is another maker of absolutely non-toxic upholstered furniture. Their furniture filling is made from natural latex foam and organic cotton batting. They use an organic wool barrier for its flame retardant property, and the covers are made with organic cotton/hemp muslin. They also do custom orders and ship anywhere in the US. For more information about the EcoBalanza, go to www.greenerlifestyles.com.
Viesso uses only natural material as well – natural latex, eco wool and organic cotton, and solid locally-sourced wood. They also use recycled fabrics and reclaimed woods. To buy their upholstered furniture, go to Viesso website. Please note that on its website, Viesso sells furniture of other makers and that furniture might not be fully natural and non-toxic. Look for Viesso’s eco-friendly option.
You can also buy Viesso sofas at the Ultimate Green Store. Click on the image below to see different colors and sizes.
Viesso Blumen Sofa – $2,882.00
from: The Ultimate Green Store
Among other things, Bean Products carries organic upholstery furniture that is made of 100% natural Dunlop latex foam, organic cotton batting, and covers made from durable natural hemp. All the other materials are non-toxic: wood, finishes, and glue. There are no flame retardants in upholstered furniture whatsoever. Bean Products furniture is made in the USA in Chicago and it is shipped anywhere in the US. They can make custom furniture for your taste and budget. To see their beautiful organic furniture, go to Bean Products website here.
Conclusion about flame retardants in upholstered furniture
In conclusion, flame retardants are commonly used and toxic. We should protect ourselves from toxic flame retardants in upholstered furniture. We can do it with relatively easy steps – small steps matter.