Ouch, Couch! A Sad Sofa Saga…Part 1

ISO: Someplace (safe and healthy) to sit.

So, it all began sometime after I thought I had done exactly the right thing. (And whenever I get THAT feeling, I should know better.)

A friend of mine who runs an environmental organization wrote me after the New York Times piece came out a few weeks back to say two things: 1) Maya is very cute; 2) I should get rid of my couch.

(Now mind you, she didn’t ask what kind of couch I had, which should have been my first clue that I was asking for a world of trouble. And yes, I do have friends that are that well-meaning in a kinda pushy way. And I like ’em for it.)

I wrote back to say, thanks! And that we have an Ikea couch, which should be fine. And she wrote back to say, think again. Cue record scratch….here.

The issue here is chemical flame retardants, which are in the foam and fabric of upholstered furniture (as well as car seats, and even strollers, which is really dumb. Watch out, the stroller’s on fire!).

I had hoped we had actually solved this issue, because the flame retardants don’t actually stay in the furniture. Research shows that they get into the dust we breathe, and on the floor, where children play and crawl around. They’ve been linked to lowered IQ, cancer, thyroid dysfunction, lowered sperm count in men, you name it. One kind in particular, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDE, still has not been banned in the U.S., and gets a pretty bad rap, particularly as its been found in the blood of American toddlers at levels 3 times higher than even that of their parents (which in turn, is far higher than samples of the chemicals among Europeans).

Turns out, I was misled along with everyone else. Back in 2009 and early 2010, when I was pregnant, I started doing all sorts of reading, which is what you do when you are, literally, the size of a sofa yourself.

I happened to read this passage from the tragi-comically named “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” in which the authors interview a scientist, Heather Stapleton, who was instrumental in showing that the chemicals get into our bodies even though they start off in the furniture:

“Are you careful in your personal life to try and avoid PBDE-laced products?” I asked.

“I am where I can be,” she replied. “For example, I don’t like to have carpets in my home; I prefer hardwood floors…. Ikea has moved away from all halogenated flame retardants, so I try to buy furniture from Ikea.”

Aha, I thought. A solution. So I called the Salvation Army, had them pick up my old couch and haul it away, and looked for a used, fugly Ikea sofa on Craigslist. Not only would I be skipping the flame retardants, I thought, but I’d also be picking it up after the formaldehyde and glues were done off-gassing. I went for their “leather” style, because it was less likely to be treated with stainguard chemicals. Now, that’s thinkin’.

My fugly Ikea sofa

Of course we found one easily, and I turned my attention to oh, having a baby. Until a few weeks ago, when I got that good news/bad news email.

In the meantime, the same Heather Stapleton continued looking into the issue. Given the timing, it was probably the minute after I hung up the phone with my Craigslist guy back in the spring of 2010 that she published her test results regarding what, exactly, were the flame retardants that Ikea and other manufacturers were using instead of PBDEs in furniture.

Surprise! Turns out, Ikea is using a chemical banned from children’s pajamas after a huge public stink back in the 1970s because it causes cancer and genetic mutations known as “Tris” (or 2,3-dibromopropyl phosphate, for the chemically curious). Back then, they learned that children merely wearing these pjs ended up with flame retardants in their urine. And, according to such radical sources as the National Cancer Institute, Tris is a “potent” cause of cancer, 100 times more powerful than the carcinogens in cigarette smoke. (Source: Slow Death by Rubber Duck, at 102.) This is in my sofa and Ikea pillows, and likely the upholstered chair in my downstairs room from Ikea as well. Grr.

(Stapleton’s tests also showed that foam manufacturers who aren’t using Tris are likely using Firemaster 550, which has never been tested for safety. Firemaster 550, which is hard to say without sounding like you’re at a Monster Truck show, contains bromine, like PBDE. It therefore has a very manly name considering that it likely reduces sperm count, like a twisted new infertility comic book character.)

Out of the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. Maya plays all over our $%#! sofa all day long. Just today, I caught her licking it, which is gross for a whole number of reasons.

I’ll pick up tomorrow with part 2, in which I gnash my teeth into tiny nubs trying to find a decent replacement for the enormous, toxic, Ikea dust-magnet in my living room.

9 thoughts on “Ouch, Couch! A Sad Sofa Saga…Part 1

  1. Pingback: Where the wild chemicals go | Way To(o) Green

  2. Pingback: Slow Death By Rubber Duck – Flame Retardants and Mercury | Silence In The Nursery

  3. Pingback: Endicott Home Furnishings|Condofurniture.com begins delivering nontoxic sofas | Endicott Home

  4. I am grateful for your thorough post and hope I may be allowed to drive eyeballs here. I design and sell a lot of smaller furniture for condos and apartments, and just sourced zero flame retardant cushions for our line of sofas, sleepers, and chairs. It’s a start – I know there are more things I need to do, but I have to start somewhere and work incrementally. Please reach me at my store for more info, and if you have any objection to my referencing your blog in my web posts. We are a tiny business in Maine, about to launch our first ecommerce website. We currently we ship all over, and just started advertising zero flame retardant sofas on NPR in Maine today so lots of interested people are needing info and clarity. Great work, thanks again! Ross Endicott/ross@condofurniture.com

  5. This is an email from Ikea fans regarding Canadian products

    IKEA International made a voluntary decision to abstain from the use of brominated flame retardants and antimony-compounds in 1998. The phase-out of these chemicals was completed in 2002. Today, all textiles, mattresses and upholstered furniture sold by IKEA stores world-wide are free of PBDE and antimony compounds.

    In Canada , the SULTAN mattress series has not been treated with flame retardants. Only mattresses sold in countries where there is strict fire legislation, at this time, the United States and the United Kingdom , have been treated with organic phosphor or nitrogen-based flame retardants.

    In countries without fire safety regulations, IKEA’s requirements are based on the Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish standards. IKEA ensures that these standards are met by choosing the right material for the product, by the design of the product, by good production control and by product testing.

    Also, the following chemical substances are banned or restricted by IKEA:

    1. No known carcinogenic substances are allowed in the products.

    2. Tinorganic compounds are not allowed. (These substances are active in disrupting the hormonesystems of animals and humans even at low concentrations.)

    3. Freones (Chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs and HCFCs) are not allowed in the production of polyurethane foams. (To avoid depleting the ozone layer.)

    Regarding emissions of volatile organic compounds to the indoor air, and in the absence of clear legislation in this area, IKEA follows strict limits based on a German guideline. Measurements cover both the short-term and the long-term emissions from products.

    For Arylamines, IKEA has a ban on such substances, which can cause skin-irritation and some of which are classified as carcinogenic.

    IKEA has banned the addition of Phthalate plasticizers to mattress-foams (using the list of substances banned by the European Union, applicable for children’s products, such as bite- rings and pacifiers). Similar requirements are relevant for latex used in mattresses (based on the environmental requirements of the European latex-producing industry).

    With regards to textile covers of mattresses:

    As a general rule, IKEA does not allow any addition of Biocides to the products. No use of Pentachlorophenol (PCP) or Lindane is allowed in the products. Tinorganic/Organotin compounds are banned by IKEA. Azodyes which can release carcinogenic arylamines are banned in all IKEA textile articles. There are strict limits equal to max 100 ppm on Formaldehyde (skin contact textiles). Flame retardants cannot be added, with the exception of those markets (UK and the USA) where legislation regarding fire safety makes this usage necessary. However, even on these markets, IKEA has a ban on the brominated flame retardants, PBDE and similar chemical compounds.

    • Hi Corri, I so appreciate your sharing this email with us. But I have to say, as someone who writes a ton of manufacturers, this is the kind of email that drives me bonkers! So many times, you get a response that says, well, we don’t use this, we don’t use that! Notice they do not say what they DO use, which we know from tests by Heather Stapleton — not their own transparency — to be chlorinated tris, a mutagen banned in the 1970s from children’s pjs. I bought the sofa from Ikea because it had been advertised as PBDE-free, so I felt angry and duped when this came to light. And I personally can’t go into an Ikea because of all their use of pressboard and highly chemicalized wood products. In addition, their stuff is made to be put together once or twice and then be landfill-bound, making it cheap to buy but very environmentally expensive. It’s disposable, really. So to say I am not a fan is an understatement.

      In the end, beware any long, hyper-explanatory emails that nonetheless fail to say WHAT IS ACTUALLY being used, and instead is a long song and dance about what it is NOT in a product. It’s like advertising potato chips as gluten-free. It may be true. They’re still not good for you.

      All best,

  6. do you know if this nasty “tris” is in ikea couches sold in canada?what do they use for flame retardants if it isn’t tris? I bought mine in 2008 -2009

    • Hi Tina, Sorry, but I’m not aware of whether the Canadian Ikea sofas have these chemicals in them or not. Great question! If you have time to inquire, please let us know what you find out! All best, Laura

      • i am hypersensitive because i wore fire retardant clothing for my work and got my claim accepted , and the strangest thing is that leather sofas trigger my sinus and lungs problems now . i personalty think its more the formaldehyde and have been focusing my efforts on that , free formaldehyde soaps , wash my clothing in powdered milk and borax to remove it . I refuse to wear my clothing and don’t have to any more

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