Almost all upholstered furniture contains polyurethane foam (usually in the seat cushions, sometimes allover), and this foam is nearly always treated with chemical flame retardants that have repeatedly been shown to be harmful to human health—studies link them to a range of adverse health effects, including cancer, endocrine disorders and neurological issues.
Why, you may ask, is your furniture doused with toxic chemicals? Because a 1975 California law mandates that furniture sold there meets a certain flammability standard, and since California is such a big market most furniture manufacturers use these chemicals in all their US product in order to comply with the California law—despite studies finding that these chemicals do not lessen the likelihood or severity of fires in household furniture, and can make fires more deadly for anybody caught in them. (In case you think that these chemicals are important for preventing fires, know that many firefighters groups oppose their use in homes).
But even if the furniture never burns, these chemicals do harm by migrating from furniture into household dust, where we can inhale them and ingest them when the dust gets on our hands. This is especially dangerous for pets and small children, since they spend lots of time on the ground—chemical flame retardants have been found in cats and dogs at levels far higher than in humans, and are suspected of causing hyperthyroidism in pet cats. Aside from the danger these chemicals pose to our personal health, they also harm the environment, because they persist (ie don't break down) for decades, and have even been found in the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.
So, how to avoid having these hazardous and earth-unfriendly chemicals in your home? Unfortunately, it's hard to eliminate them entirely, though you can try to look for furniture that doesn't contain polyurethane foam, and ask lots of questions about whether furniture you're thinking of buying contains flame retardants (though I've tried this and, unfortunately, the salespeople usually have no idea). Flame retardants are also used in many household electronics, though some of the major computer companies have pledged to stop using them. But here are a few things you can do to reduce your exposure (tips courtesy of the Environmental Working Group):
- Inspect foam items. Replace items with a ripped cover or foam that is misshapen and breaking down. If you can't replace these items, try to keep the covers intact. Beware of older items like car seats and mattress pads where the foam is not completely encased in a protective fabric.
- Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. These vacuums trap small particles more efficiently and will likely remove more contaminants and other allergens from your home. High-efficiency HEPA-filter air cleaners may also reduce particle-bound contaminants in your house.
- Do not reupholster foam furniture yourself. The reupholstering process increases exposure risk.
- Remove old carpet with care. The padding may contain chemical flame retardants. Keep your work area isolated from the rest of your home. Clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and mop to pick up as many of the small particles as possible.
- When purchasing new products, ask the manufacturers what type of fire retardants they use. PBDEs (one of the most notorious types of flame retardant) are no longer used in new foam, but you'll want to avoid products with any brominated fire retardants, and opt for less flammable fabrics and materials, like leather, wool and cotton. Be aware that "natural" latex foam will also contain fire retardants.
Finally, instead of replacing an old sofa or other upholstered item, consider slipcovering it or reupholstering. This won't affect your personal health, but if enough of us do this it will slow down the rate at which flame retardant-laced furniture is made, and prevent some of these chemicals from winding up in landfills and polluting the planet.
For more information about chemical flame retardants, and actions you can take on this issue, visit the website of the Green Science Policy Institute.
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