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Polyurethane Foam: What is Inside Our Furniture?

Written by Irina Webb

polyurethane foamI 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 protective 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. When it comes to babies and crib mattresses, I believe it is crucial to buy a crib mattress free of polyurethane foam. Here is a study that determined that the air sampled in the interior air of polyurethane crib mattresses had up to 21 times higher VOCs than the rest of the air in the room.


In addition, researchers from the National Research Foundation of Korea tested 5 different types of furniture and found that items made of polyurethane foam exhibited much higher VOC levels than others (source).


Also, if you are a cancer patient or cancer survivor, you might not want to buy upholstered furniture or mattress made with polyurethane foam at very least when you are actively fighting cancer.  Here is why.


One of the main diisocyanates used to make polyurethane foam is called toluene diisocyanate (TDI).  It has been classified as “reasonably to be anticipated as a human carcinogen” by the US National Toxicology Program (source).


There is some evidence that TDI is added more than necessary to make polyurethane foam.  That means that the polyurethane foam that is in your home may emit significant carcinogenic TDI (Boor, B., Spilak, M., Laverge, J., Novoselac, A., & Xu, Y. (2017). Human exposure to indoor air pollutants in sleep microenvironments: A literature review. Building and Environment, 125, 528-555.)


And if you own furniture made with polyurethane foam and are not in a position to change that, improve your air quality with an air purifier or by opening windows regularly.


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 anymore. 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 on 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.

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13 thoughts on “Polyurethane Foam: What is Inside Our Furniture?”

  1. Avatar

    Thanks so much for all your research- I know you have covered this before but it would be great if you could update the list of places we can buy non-toxic couches and chairs. Thanks!

    1. Avatar

      Hi Emily
      I’m sure Irina will post some great resources but in the meantime, 2 sources are Cisco (if you specify the ‘green inside’ line) and Ekla home furniture. I had a custom upholstered bed frame made by Ekla and it came out beautifully – I sent her a picture of what I wanted and she made it with non-toxic materials. She is based out of LA so it is a little risky purchasing “sight unseen” but I went to see a couch she made (for a local family, who was kind enough to let me into their home to see it!) and both the couch and bedframe she made were impeccably done. I also have a chair from Cisco that is very well made. I highly recommend Rowena at Pine Street Interiors to help you with any furniture decisions – she is really on top of all the issues.


  2. Avatar

    This came at a perfect time! Trying to find safe alternatives to everthing is so time consuming and frustrating especially when you feel a company is being secretive or dishonest about their products. How can you tell a truly honest company/product from the rest? I’d love a post on that; how to sort through all the greenwashing and some good questions to ask to get going in the right direction.

  3. Avatar

    Interesting article. Thanks for all the research you’ve done. I recently had a baby girl and am obsessed with the materials in her products / stuffed animals. Our neighbour bought her a Minnie Mouse stuffed animal and my daughter is so drawn to it (likely because of the contrasting black/white/pink colours) but I cringe every time she reaches for it because there is polyurethane foam listed in the materials. I imagine this is toxic to young children, and, if so, why are companies allowed to use such a material in toys made for children? (also listed is ethylene vinyl acetate foam, which I don’t know much about)

    1. Irina Webb

      Hi Kara, I completely understand your concerns. Unfortunately, in the US, it is up to us consumers to protect ourselves from toxins. Here is an article I wrote that will help you understand the US system in regard to toxic chemicals. I encourage you while doing your best to reduce exposure to toxins, remember not to stress out as stress can more harmful than toxins. Yes, it is best to get stuffed animals made of certified organic cotton, at least in the first year of life. Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (aka EVA) is considered a safer alternative to PVC because it does not have chlorine, phthalates, and BPA. But I always ask what is used instead. (And really get answers.:( But we can get answers if we stick together. I hope you will join my blog.) And surely, EVA was tested a few years ago and found to have formamide, which is a carcinogen. So it is best to avoid it, if possible. I hope this helps and you’ll keep in touch. Irina

  4. Avatar

    I realize this was posted a few years ago but I have a concern. I recently bought a used loveseat that emits an oily almost gasoline odor. Didn’t realize this until I got it home. It’s cute and I hoped the odor would dissipate after a time but it has not. I just saw in this article that one of the chemicals used to make this foam is a petroleum derivative. Should I just get rid of it?


  5. Avatar

    Sad to say that I was unaware my loungie flip chair which arrived today has 80% polyurethane foam and 20% polyurethane cotton. The fabric is made of Micro-Suede. The only reason I came to know this is from the tag on the chair. NO added flame retardant chemicals. I bought it especially for my 3 and 4 year old great grandkids when they stay the night. It’s fully convertible and turns into a sleeper. Now I’m very confused as to whether I will be harming their health if I keep it. It’s so hard to return things. I would appreciate any input you can give. Thanking you in advance.

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