New Study Released Today Confirms: 85 Percent of Couches Contain Toxic Chemicals

A new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Environment Science and Technology, was just published today by Heather Stapleton. Its results confirm what she has been saying about the ubiquity and harm from flame retardants in sofas, and gives more credence to my incessant complaints, but that doesn’t really make me happy. At all.

A good number of foam samples — 102 — were gathered from around the U.S. and tested for chemicals added as flame retardants. In sum, the study demonstrates that:

  • 85% of the couches tested had toxic or untested chemicals in the foam.
  • The newer the couch, the more the toxic flame retardants were used.
  • Flame retardants use by furniture manufacturers across the country is increasing. Of couches purchased in the last 7 years, 94% contain toxic chemicals added as flame retardants.
  • In samples purchased prior to 2005, PBDEs were the most common flame retardants detected (39%), followed by tris (or TDCPP; 24%), which is a suspected human carcinogen.
  • In samples purchased in 2005 or later, the most common flame retardants detected were tris (TDCPP; 52%) and components associated with the Firemaster550 (FM 550) mixture (18%).
  • Since the 2005 phase-out of PentaBDE, the use of tris (TDCPP) increased significantly. (Note: this means that my experience of buying an Ikea couch because there were no PBDEs in it, only to find that it contained tris, is more common than anyone knew…)
  • Flame retardants were found at levels of up to 11%, or 110,000 parts per million, by weight of the foam. (Translation: this stuff is measured in pounds, as the Chicago Tribune stories said.)
  • Almost all couches (98%) with the TB 117 label (indicating they comply with rules for flame retardants in California) contained the chemicals.
  • Recent studies show toddlers have three times the level of their moms.
  • Previous studies show that children of color have levels higher than the general population. (So depressing!)
  • These chemicals continuously migrate from products, to house dust, to children and pets.
  • There are no data that show any fire safety benefit from using the flame retardants to meet the California flammability standard. (Here’s a link to a very clear and helpful post from a Ph.D. student in toxicology who walks carefully through all the evidence on this point.)

My pal Lindsay Dahl over at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has already written a great post on the study. As she says, the real solution to this problem is to address the elephant-sized toxic couch in the room: for Congress to get off its duff and enact comprehensive chemical reform, by passing the Safe Chemicals Act.

The bill that would establish a system for ensuring chemicals are safe before they enter the market, and therefore our living rooms. The bill had its first historic vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee this past summer, has 29 Senate co-sponsors, and awaiting a Senate floor vote. Take action here, and let the Senate know the time for action is now. Not tomorrow. Now.


New to the issue or the blog and want to know more? Start in this happy place, and all the other links are at the bottom.

18 thoughts on “New Study Released Today Confirms: 85 Percent of Couches Contain Toxic Chemicals

  1. Pingback: Toxic Hot Seat on HBO tonight! | Laura's "Rules"

  2. Hi laura,
    I find your site very illuminating. I’m planning to make a bassinet for my little daughter due this summer. Do you happen to know of a company that has fire retardant-free free foam? The only foam available at my local fabric store is most definitely doused in chemicals. Please let me know if you know of any company that offers this via mail order service

  3. Does anyone know about the safety of sofas from Ballard Designs? In an email to my wife today, customer services said “We have checked our records and have found our sofas do not contain fire retardants.” They’re a major retailer with a vast inventory, so I’m a bit skeptical. Their sofas are nice though, so I’m hoping it’s true.

  4. Thank you so much for reporting on this! I’m a new to this important (and sad) news, and might have just enough time to return my new Ikea sofa, before it comes to my door, so it can avoid the landfill.

    Do you happen to know if Ikea ever followed up with more information to the statement it made to a Slate reporter that Ikea would phase out tris by Autumn 2010? Ikea said it would be replaced with an “organo-phosphorous compound” – vague enough? (

      • I got on the phone with several Ikea reps for over an hour, and no one was able to tell me the name of the flame-retardant chemical used in the foam in their sofas. Interestingly, Ikea did tell me that the same chemical has been used since before 2010, so my guess is that if Ikea ever did have plans to phase out tris as the Slate article noted, it never happened.

        Anyway, Ikea lost my business, and now I’m on the hunt to find a less harmful sofa. I will definitely check out your recommendations!

  5. What are we doing? Our system is so antiquated. My couch is from IKEA and contains FRs…. but it seems wasteful to get rid of a perfectly good couch, not to mention expensive. I am going to take action and ask Congress to pass the Safe Chemicals Act, we shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of all this toxic chemical nonsense. Great post as always, thanks for sharing good info!

    • Exactly! How green is it, now, that the landfills will fill up with toxic couches???

      (That’s why I posted for someone to come take the Ikea piece I tossed, instead of throwing it out. I put them on notice, though.)

      But the total environmental cost of this is staggering — the workers, the shipping, etc., — for all those couches that will leach toxics into the landfills. What a waste, all around.

  6. Great summary of an excellent article! I find it amazing to think that 50% of the couches purchased post-2005 contain tris. Last year tris was added to California’s Proposition 65 list, meaning that nearly half of all couches in the US would contain the warning “This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer” – which should definitely change people’s purchasing habits and may impact the application of tris in consumer products.

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