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.