Is Your Couch Making You Sick?
In This Article:
- The furniture you work in and live in may be harmful to your health
- What’s in Modern Furniture
- What I decided to do to test my own home furniture
- What you can do today to minimize your exposure at home and work
We hear so much about eating properly and exercising to be healthy. Most of us haven’t spent time thinking about the products we interact with all day long. Furniture is one of those ubiquitous products we contact from the time we wake up, in our beds, to the time we head to work, in our vehicles, to our time in the office, sitting in a chair, to the time we go home and relax, on our couch.
Scientists are increasingly concerned about halogenated flame retardants in furniture. The recent HBO documentary, Toxic Hotseat, explores this connection.
The bottom line is that halogenated flame retardants in furniture, like your couch at home, come off the foam and fabric and wind up in household dust. This dust is breathed in by those in the house and specifically children who crawl on the floor and bounce on the couch (more than adults, presumably).
These halogenated flame retardants may be toxic and persistent in the environment and may build up in humans and the environment over time. Already the CDC is finding halogenated flame retardants in blood samples of most every human on earth.
Think About Your Day
Think about all the furniture you spend time in each day. You sleep, relax, commute, travel and work in furniture. And it may be harming your health.
Maintaining good health today is largely an exercise of identifying hazards around us and minimizing or eliminating them. In the past, we could clearly see and identify danger without own eyes, and then move out of the way.
Today, all of us head to work in a world that is full of unseen hazards. If you want to increase your health and longevity, you have to understand the invisible hazards around you and Biohack your workplace and home.
In the past, we could clearly see the things that could harm us. Bears, lions, wolves and more were very visible signs that we could be in danger and we could begin formulating away to steer clear of this danger. Today, the things that can harm us are largely invisible. These consist of potentially harmful chemicals in our food, water and air.
Most of us know about and take steps to eat and drink healthy. And all of us are pretty certain to run the other way if we encounter a bear, which is rare, but it happens.
However, we often don’t think about the chemicals we breathe in and touch every single day. These chemicals can be more harmful to our health than those that we eat or drink (assuming we have cleaned up our diet).
We Live in a Series of Sealed Boxes
It’s almost like we’re living in these sealed boxes and we keep bringing in this stuff that gives off toxic fumes. So the boxes we live in become more and more toxic and we keep them sealed up for longer and longer with our air conditioning, better insulation sealing, and heating.
Flame Retardant Worries
One class of chemicals we breathe in, touch and come into contact with on a daily basis are flame retardants. Flame retardants have been added to furniture (mattresses, sofa cushions, textiles, automobiles, airplanes, work chairs and more) and get into our bodies through a couple routes. Many of the flame retardants used in the recent past (I’m talking about 2004 and even today) have been banned or are about to be banned due to potential human toxicity and animal toxicity (yup, your cat might develop a thyroid issue from licking all that flame retardant off her fur).
Most “soft seating” furniture in the US contains polyurethane foam.
Nearly all polyurethane foam in furniture (including cars and airplanes) contains flame retardants.
The flame retardants used in foam tend to be halogenated flame retardants.
Halogenated flame retardants have been linked to cancer and may have many negative impacts on children. In fact, certain flame retardants that were banned in the 1970s from children’s pajamas have made their way to our sofas, work chairs and beds.
It is highly likely that if you have a couch, sit in an office chair, commute to work or travel, you are exposed to halogenated flame retardants.
Flame retardants come out of furniture in the dust. The dust can then be inhaled, eaten (if hands aren’t washed), or migrate onto food surfaces from general household dust.
If your couch or your work chair contains polyurethane foam, and there’s an overwhelmingly good chance it does then every time you sit on your couch, or breathe dust in the air from the room where your couch is, you could be taking in potentially toxic chemicals. This problem is worse for our children because they crawl around more than we do on the furniture and the floor and can be exposed to more dust.
Almost all furniture with foam manufactured prior to 2016 contained flame retardants to meet a California State law. This law was changed in 2013 to allow flame retardants to be removed from furniture, but it doesn’t mean the manufacturers are doing that. Many of them made the change to flame retardant free furniture beginning in 2015, but not all have done so and not all of them have fully transitioned.
The dust that comes off your couch is made up of particles of the fabric and foam from your couch. The foam in your couch most likely contains flame retardants. In fact a study by Green Science Policy indicates that over 94% of all couches made in the last 5 years contain these flame retardants. The study suggests that couches likely contain not trace amounts of flame retardants, but pounds of flame retardants.
The common flame retardants used most recently included a probable human carcinogen (chlorinated TRIS) and a globally banned flame retardant (PBDE, which was banned in 2004). Over 85% of couches used flame retardants that were potentially toxic or had never been tested for safety at all.
This is a bit disturbing if your own a couch, commute to work by automobile, travel on an airplane or work in an office.
According to a Duke University Study, halogenated flame retardants may cause hormone disruption, cancer and neurological toxicity, and according to a study in Environmental Health Perspectives the children of mothers who had a specific halogenated flame retardant in their blood during pregnancy had lower birth weight, lower IQ scores, shorter attention spans and less fine motor coordination.
Further, some studies and opinion indicate that the flame retardants do not slow down flame spread by more than a few seconds and once furniture containing these chemicals ignites, the gas emitted is more toxic than without them.
Since you can’t find a car without flame retardants and can’t fly in an airplane without them, your best bet would be to replace your office furniture and your home furniture with models that do not contain any flame retardants (because they aren’t really effective and likely cause far more harm to your health than good).
Does My Work Chair or Couch Contain Flame Retardants?
Replacing couches and office furniture is expensive, but if you care about your health, it’s probably a good idea to understand the hazards at your workplace and home and work to ensure the healthiest environment possible.
Knowing what I do about furniture, I wanted to know if I was being exposed to potentially toxic flame retardants in my home and workplace. Since my workplace is my home office, I could kill two birds with one stone.
Back in 2004 I had bought 2 sofas from Art Van in Michigan. They are still in great shape and look almost brand new.
Even though I am convinced that my couch contains flame retardants, I decided to participate in Duke University’s free analytical testing (link) to quantitatively tell me what flame retardant chemicals are present in my couch.
I heard about a way to test whether my furniture contains flame retardants. And it’s Free!
Duke University wants to know what flame retardants are in your foam. Just send them a sample and they’ll test it and send you results for free!
You can read about and sign up for this program right here:
I’m testing my couch (because I already know exactly what’s in my work chair, since part of my job is to know what chemicals are in every single piece of office furniture).
I will post the process and the results here once I receive them.
The Duke project can only analyze 50 samples of foam a month and each household is allowed to send in 5 samples (1 sample from each foam chair or couch you own, up to 5). Once 50 samples have been submitted to the lab, they will close the sample submission process until the next month.
I went onto the Duke website, created a sample submission, readied my materials as requested in their email, and then went to work.
How I Tested
The test subject:
I unzipped the fabric and cut a small piece of cushion.
I placed it in aluminum foil and put it in a plastic bag as recommended by the Duke website link.
I mailed the sample to Duke for testing
I was a bit nervous about cutting up a sample of my couch, but the process seemed pretty unobtrusive and there is no way we will ever notice the missing piece.
I’m waiting for my results and for the sample submission to open up again so I can test the other three pieces of foam containing furniture we own.
I’m not sure what I’m going to do once I have the results in hand…
Want More Info?
Good resource on the why, how, what, where of flame retardants in your home.
The Chicago Tribune article on flame retardants and the chemical company response to try to keep them in commerce, but failed.