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Last updated on December 4th, 2016
I often get emails from manufacturers of upholstered furniture about the fact they are fully compliant with the updated California flammability regulation (CA TB 117-2013) and that their furniture is now free of any flame retardant chemicals. First of all, it is flattering that they feel compelled to report to me (although it makes sense, given how much I have written about CA TB 117). Second, what do I do now? A few times I had a fleeting thought that I should tell you which manufacturers stopped using flame retardants in their furniture. Instead, I want to tell you about the real problem – most of these same manufacturers continue using polyurethane foam.
While most upholstered furniture is free of toxic flame retardants now – thanks to many brave men and women who have been fighting for the change for decades – upholstered furniture is still made of toxic materials. Most of the furniture sold to US consumers is made of polyurethane foam (aka polyfoam).
What is polyurethane foam?
Polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol, a type of alcohol that causes death if ingested, and a diisocyanate, a derivative of petroleum. While both substances are deadly, the major concern lies with diisocyanate. Do you know that workers who make the polyurethane foam that you sit comfortably on have to work wearing full body protection gear and respirators? Is there something wrong with this picture?
What is wrong with polyurethane foam?
Toxic to the environment
Plant workers who make polyurethane foam wear respirators. Often, when manufacturing using toxic materials, there is a concern that the chemicals used in the production may leach out into the surrounding areas. And this is no exception. In fact, by 2001, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) had identified polyurethane foam manufacturing facilities as a potential major source of hazardous air pollutants such as methylene chloride, hydrochloric acid (HCl), 2,4-toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide (HCN). These substances are known to cause irritation of the lung, eye, and mucous membranes, effects on the central nervous system, and cancer.
Toxic to people who buy furniture
When you bring polyurethane foam upholstered furniture home, it may continue emitting toxic gasses into the air. These gas emissions are called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and may contribute to a variety of short-term or long-term problems ranging from headaches and allergies to cancer.
Recently, as a result of concerns over VOCs, some polyurethane foam is certified for low emissions either by CertiPur, the industry association, or GreenGuard. They are emissions nevertheless. I believe it is crucial to buy crib mattress free of polyurethane foam. Here is a study that determined that some polyurethane foam crib mattresses may emit VOCs 21 times higher than the rest of the air in the room.
Polyurethane foam is a major contributor to landfill.
Once something toxic has been created, it is impossible to get rid of it without bad consequences. Polyurethane foam is not biodegradable, which means that it goes into ever-growing landfills.
This is a serious problem we are facing now. The law does not require furniture manufacturers to use flame retardant chemicals any more. But what do we do with all this polyurethane foam treated with flame retardants? People want to get rid of it from their homes. Unfortunately, there is no good answer here. Most likely it is going to be recycled, which is not ideal either, because it will come back to us in other products.
Polyurethane foam produces deadly gasses when burned
What happens when a building with all this polyurethane foam catches on fire? Not a pretty picture. (By the way, treating with flame retardant chemicals does not prevent polyurethane foam from catching on fire.)
Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. A number of studies (read here, here, and here) showed that polyurethane foam releases significantly higher amounts of hydrogen cyanide at a faster rate than other materials such as cotton, wool, and nylon.
Hydrogen cyanide is so toxic that it was used by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists who attacked Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, and in Nazi death camps during World War II.
Reliance on non-renewable petroleum resource
As I said earlier, 50% of polyurethane foam is diisocyanate, a petroleum derivative. As you can imagine, we want to get away from relying on something that it is not going to last forever and has concerns over its extraction.
Are there any benefits of polyurethane foam?
It is very cheap! (I know – you are shocked – shocked! to learn that money is a factor here.) Furniture free of polyurethane foam will cost you at least 2-3 times more. From my conversations with the natural furniture industry, I understand that the cheap cost of making polyurethane foam is not necessarily passed to end consumers. Natural furniture makers operate on much thinner profit margins.
So, as you can see, except for the immediate savings, which do not include long-term costs associated with medical care and environmental pollution, there are no reasons to buy polyurethane foam furniture.