Must Read: Today’s Great New York Times Story on Toxic Sofas

Red sofa

Red sofa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been under the weather with viral bronchitis all week, but was cheered to see this long and wonderful article today in the New York Times featuring a personal heroine of mine, Arlene Blum.

Most shocking from the piece? This information from a new study on flame retardants in the blood of toddlers (the emphasis is mine):

Most disturbingly, a recent study of toddlers in the United States conducted by researchers at Duke University found flame retardants in the blood of every child they tested. The chemicals are associated with an assortment of health concerns, including antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, lowered levels of male hormones and hyperthyroidism.

The article talks about the California rule on flame retardants, now under reconsideration in that state. It also notes the need for a federal bill that would better regulate chemical safety, like the Safe Chemicals Act that just got a hearing in the Senate. And it makes clear the problem that new chemicals remain under a shroud of secrecy, under rules that allow the chemical industry to deem them “proprietary” despite being in all of our living rooms:

Logic would suggest that any new chemical used in consumer products be demonstrably safer than a compound it replaces, particularly one taken off the market for reasons related to human health. But of the 84,000 industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States, only about 200 have been evaluated for human safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because industrial chemicals are presumed safe unless proved otherwise, under the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

When evidence begins to mount that a chemical endangers human health, manufacturers tend to withdraw it from the market and replace it with something whose effects — and often its ingredients — are unknown. The makeup of the flame retardant Firemaster 550, for instance, is considered a proprietary trade secret. At a recent conference, Stapleton discussed a small, unpublished study in which she fed female rats low doses of Firemaster 550. The exposed mothers’ offspring gained more weight, demonstrated more anxiety, hit puberty earlier and had abnormal reproductive cycles when compared with unexposed offspring — all signs that the chemical disrupts the endocrine system.

The article also notes how difficult it is to find furniture without chemicals in it, which is certainly the case. In addition to the options I’ve laid out in prior posts, linked to below, I’ve recently found a few new cheaper possibilities:

  • First, I found a wonderful mid-century modern chair on Craigslist for a little more than $100 with the original mid-60s upholstery. Since these flame retardant chemicals generally entered furniture after 1975, it’s likely fine, though I didn’t have any testing done. Other wood-framed mid-century pieces, including sofas, could be fitted with custom-made cushions, which I’ve ordered from Etsy for some of our current furniture, or, if you’re crafty, even made by hand.
  • Futons are an option– according to a wonderful reader of this blog, SallyS, there are evidently a range of cushion options, including organic. Again, Craigslist may be an option for cheap solid wood frames.
  • Also on Craigslist, I scored a 20-year-old Italian-made leather chair for a very reasonable sum. Given its foreign make and age, I’m guessing, again, that this is likely ok. While I realize that very-old-and-foreign-made-and-still-desirable-for-my-sitting-room is likely a small category, I figured it was worth a mention…

If you’re hunting for more options, please check out the posts below as well as the incredibly helpful comments from resourceful readers for some greener manufacturers and other DIY ideas.

More resources on flame retardants and furniture:

23 thoughts on “Must Read: Today’s Great New York Times Story on Toxic Sofas

  1. We are currently shopping for a compact sized workdesk for our own study.
    The wife cant decide whether to buy a free standing
    desk or one that is more built in with our other Randi.

  2. That article scared the crap out of me too and I’ve been busy researching but perhaps someone can confirm this for me. If I sell a sofa in Washington (or anywhere outside of CA) that is latex wrapped in polyfill or cotton wrapped in fabric, that’s legal right? It wouldn’t be the most flame retardant sofa if i don’t use rather expensive wool batting (I’ll have quotes from a couple of wool guys this upcoming week but I anticipate price to be very high) but it would be both affordable and non-poisonous. In my home I’d probably prefer a sofa that caught fire over one that was giving me cancer…

    So far as I can tell the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has been talking about imposing fire standards on upholstered goods for years and years but never got around to it. If that’s the case I can sell a latex filled sofa wrapped in a hot washed linen cover for not much over 2k. But before I really dig in with developing this new line I need to know my business can’t be shut down for selling a non-poisonous talalay latex sofa.
    ameer
    couchseattle.com

    • Hi there, Thanks so much for your interest in doing this! I can’t really give you what you are asking for, which is legal advice, given bar licensing laws that apply by state. I am asking some key sources for additional information on these and other questions, which I will post this week, with luck. Of course, you should ask a lawyer in your state to evaluate this question for you definitively.
      Here’s what I know, with that caveat in mind, and with a standing invitation to readers of the blog for corrections/additions:
      1) The CPSC rule has not been finalized and there is no national standard for products generally.
      2) There are some localities and states that have public accommodation rules that apply to public spaces and impose fire code standards, but these are not directed at residential furniture.
      3) There is a fight currently over international standards for flame retardancy in electronics (see: http://www.greensciencepolicy.org/node/18); and may be national standards in the U.S. that apply (I have not researched this).
      4) California is the only state in the country with a standard that applies to some residential furniture, that standard has been suspended by order of the Governor, and a new standard was proposed for comment in late June. You can find the proposal by googling “TB 117-2012.” Separately, last year, the juvenile products standard was also suspended, as explained here: https://laurasrules.org/2012/04/15/sofa-saga-part-3-interview-with-flame-retardants-expert-heather-stapleton/
      And please keep in mind when you are talking to customers and marketing the products that the flame retardant chemicals really have no proven safety benefits, and in fact, make more smoke and soot (90 percent more!) and therefore make fires more toxic and deadly — for example, see the peer reviewed studies cited about halfway down this page on the left0hand column: http://www.greensciencepolicy.org/.
      Best wishes in your project — and let me know if you start making such a line, as I would be pleased to add to my list of sources for non-toxic furniture! Laura

      • Amir, Hello – I talked to you almost two years ago! This nice man has a company does make beautiful sofas, no doubt, and Amir was kind enough to offer to do “whatever it takes” to build me “whatever I wanted”. As did another who impressed Laura with his understanding, Amir did impress me with understanding of what was desired. I’m just to cowardly to set out such amounts on something untried with regards to my personal comfort, arthritics are picky about comfort.
        I wish there were a good middle ground! I hope the legalities pan out, but I fear some ‘red tape’ involvement.

        Ann – wicker is a great idea! I looked at a gorgeous sofa early in the summer – missed out on it, but I’m glad somebody else thought of it. Autumnal sales of outdoor furniture also offers wood as well as wicker

        If anyone has time to roam around the internet – search around and look at photos of daybeds, loungers, platforms and such. Inspiration comes in many forms and creativity is a human need.

      • Re: the wicker idea — I just stumbled across a cool wicker indoor chair today from a catalog by Chiasso: http://www.chiasso.com/store/item.aspx?DepartmentId=38&ItemId=57538

        The cushion is “cotton” — you’d have to ask whether its been doused in flame retardants — and it wouldn’t hurt to ask about the finish on the chair as well. Also, it’s not cheap, and it has a hefty shipping charge. But it looks cool, and it has a better chance of being ok than most upholstered pieces, so its worth a mention.
        — Laura

  3. That article scared the crap out of me too and I’ve been busy researching but perhaps someone can confirm this for me. If I sell a sofa in Washington (or anywhere outside of CA) that is latex wrapped in polyfill or cotton wrapped in fabric, that’s fully legal right? It wouldn’t be the most flame retardant sofa at that point but it would be both affordable and non-poisonous. So far as I can tell the federal consumer protection agency has been talking about imposing fire standards on upholstered goods for years and years but never got around to it? If that’s the case I can sell a latex filled sofa wrapped in a hot washed linen cover for not much over 2k. But before I really dig in with developing this new line I need to know my business can’t be shut down for selling a non-poisonous latex sofa.
    ameer
    couchseattle.com

  4. Hi Laura thank you so much for your blog, did you end up buying the sofa from robert craig and if so what was your experience did you already received it thaks

  5. What a great resource your site is! I found it after reading the NYT Magazine article and looked for more resources, as I’m in the market for a couch. I liked the suggestion above about furniture that includes materials such as buckwheat hulls. Has anyone seen a couch that is more conventional and off-the-floor that uses buckwheat hulls as the filling?

    • Hi Maggie, Sorry to say that I have not, but the readers of this blog are incredibly resourceful and someone may have. It occurs to me that you could use a futon frame and a cushion with stiff fabric, but I also had a great nursing pillow that used buckwheat hulls and even in that size, it was fairly heavy! Best wishes in your search, and please let us know if you find anything that works! All best, Laura

  6. Hi Laura, What about this company I’ve come across in a search? http://www.zafu.net/index.html They offer Japanese- style floor seating with natural fibers (wool, kapok, buckwheat) and just challenge us to re-think our Western ideas about furniture and comfort. I’m considering the Deluxe Floor Couch.

    • Michelle, it is a challenge to re-think our ideas about furniture and comfort. Perhaps this is another reminder that too much emphasis has been placed on looks. How many cultures have a form of floor lounge or elevated bed sized lounge for relaxation? Oh my, it’s a long list. “Form follows function” and that’s where we need to start.
      The Carolina Morning Platform couch is their top end, but offers a clean form for a basic function, the platforms build a base and you choose sides or not – clean and lovely in simplicity. .

  7. Thank you for the update and links! Believe it or not, I feel comfort knowing that others are going through the same plight that I am. Maybe when enough people demand change it will happen. Have you found any good suppliers of chemical free upholstery foam?

    • Hi Ann! Thanks so much for your support! I have not asked about suppliers — and there was even controversy in the comments about whether flame-retardant free foam exists (note that even this foam would not be “chemical free” — they use toluene and other harmful chemicals to make polyurethane foam, which may have its own issues and is why some recommend natural latex). I’ve been reassured by furniture makers that the foam does exist, but told that you must be quite specific to get it. Sorry I don’t have more for you — all best, Laura

    • I agree that ‘foam’ generally refers to polyurethane and don’t care what they leave off of it, it’ is still nasty stuff. Life is about the choices we have to make and sometimes hard trade-offs.

      Ann W – This company offers what is called Certi Pure foam at http://www.foambymail.com and this page provides more information on that http://www.foambymail.com/certipur-us.html , or straight to http://certipur.us/pages/

      I have found this foam supplier that also carries latex upholstery cushions – quite customizable in size, shape, thickness. http://www.foamsource.com/shop/customize/ Allow me to offer a bit of caution there also, latex has a spring-back that varies a good bit between Talalay and Dunlop, as well as the difference between soft, medium, and firm – ask about the ILD (also used for polyfoam and refers to lbs for displacement). A good medium Dunlop will refer to your seat similarly to a poly-foam that has been broken in, whereas firm will feel like a new firm poly foam cushion and not get softer by much. Talalay has a more open cell structure and is softer by nature, used in toppers and thicker for seating. This company allows layering, (essentially gluing different thicknesses of varied density) which an awful lot of folks utilize when building out their mattresses (that’s how I found them). Unfortunately I have not seen them list organic latex, I’m going to look further – but usually if they don’t say – it isn’t.

      Being a curious cat, I compared prices and again the latex is six times the price of even the highest end poly foam. One 22″x24″x4″ cushion in top end poly foam for 25.90 or latex for 131.90, either would require some muscle and patience, as well as time and well ventilated space to replace an old cushion.

      • Hi Sally,

        You are always so incredibly helpful! I can’t thank you enough. I do want to note on the “Certipur” foam that Heather Stapleton was convinced that this was NOT free of flame retardant chemicals (https://laurasrules.org/2012/04/15/sofa-saga-part-3-interview-with-flame-retardants-expert-heather-stapleton/), just fyi. On latex, I have to ask, has your research suggested that these are natural processes? What are the chemicals added to latex to make it pliable and give it these different textures? Etc. I know it comes originally from rubber trees, but surely there is some processing… I’ve always wondered about what that involves, and guess that you would know. All best, Laura

      • Thank you both for your responses! I am tempted to just use wicker until we are able to afford a European furniture buying vacation…. in about 50 years :X

    • Hi Olivia,

      Thanks so much for the interesting link!

      Based on federal tests reported on by the Chicago Tribune, its not clear that flame retardant chemicals currently show any benefit in furniture and, frankly, I question the need for them in consumer products across-the-board. However, for some uses — such as in the seats of cars and airplanes, which are full of these chemicals, btw — an alternative chemical that is safer for health may be of some use given the risks from fires. I’m unfamiliar with studies on the costs and benefits of their uses in cars and planes, and a colleague who is an expert on cars told me recently that the newer models are so full of flammable plastics that they pose a more grave fire risk than older vehicles, for example, meaning that the cost-benefit may vary.

      Still, while I am all for safer chemicals, we have reason, certainly, to be skeptical about claims by the chemical industry as to safety. I would be interested in valid, third-party scientific testing by public-health minded (rather than industry-funded) scientists and their results on the safety of these allegedly “safer” chemicals. If this is a new class of chemicals, rather than a chemical similar to a class that has been well-studied, ascertaining its safety may take substantial time and study, including studies robust enough to reveal any health concerns.

      I would hope, certainly, that safer alternatives can be developed. I would just want to know that they are actually safer before celebrating a way forward. If you see more on this topic, please do let me know, as I think it’s fascinating!

      All best,
      Laura

      • Thank you Laura for your very complete input in this matter. I agree with you in a 3rd party scientific testing by public scientists.

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