Consumer Update: Toxins in Furniture

Flame retardant chemicals are volatile and harmful. Discover what you can do to ensure your family’s health and safety.

Furnished room

While policy changes have allowed mainstream furniture manufacturers to produce items without flame-retardant chemicals, items produced before 2015 may still contain them.

Photo by Room & Board

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Our homes are our sanctuaries. We spend time and resources to create spaces that are inviting, comfortable and express our personal style. It’s just as important, however, to pay attention to the materials that go into making the chairs, couches and other home furnishings that make up our living spaces.

To meet flame-retardant standards set by California’s Technical Bulletin 117, introduced in 1975, many home furnishing manufacturers added chemical flame retardants to their products. A 2011 study published in Environmental Science & Technology concluded that flame retardants accounted for 5 percent of the weight of baby furniture products, and were found in 80 percent of samples tested. Flame-retardant chemicals are linked with cancer, reproductive disorders and brain damage, and they are especially worrisome around children and pregnant women — particularly polybrominated diphenyl ethers, cancer-causing flame retardants forced from the market 10 years ago. On furniture tags, the label, “This article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117” indicates the presence of flame retardants.

While policy changes in California have allowed mainstream furniture manufacturers to produce items without flame-retardant chemicals, items produced before 2015 may still contain flame retardants. Fortunately, another policy change requires manufacturers to clearly label whether a piece of furniture contains flame retardants. Tags for non-flame-retardant furniture should read “The upholstery materials in this product contain NO added flame-retardant chemicals.”

Concerned about potentially toxic flame retardants in your sofa? The Superfund Analytical Chemistry Core program at Duke University allows consumers to send in foam samples to test for toxins. Simply fill out the submission form at foam.pratt.duke.edu, and send a marble-size piece of foam from furniture you’d like to have tested. Program scientists test the sample and send a report detailing what flame-retardant chemicals they’ve found, and their potential health risks. The program can process up to 50 samples per month, and coordinators ask that individuals limit submissions to five samples per household. Some companies, including the Friendly Foam Shop (friendlyfoam.com) north of Seattle and Foam Order (foamorder.com) in the Bay Area, offer replacement foam cushions without toxic chemicals, which is often cheaper than opting for a whole new piece of furniture.


Best Bets

If you’re shopping for furniture, consider these manufacturers, who as of 2015 have sold nontoxic pieces, according to the Environmental Working Group. Find images for each piece in the slideshow above.

Room & Board
Eden Convertible Sleeper Sofa
999 dollars, roomandboard.com

Ikea
Stockholm Sofa
999 dollars, ikea.com

Crate & Barrel
Margot Sofa
1,099 dollars, crateandbarrel.com

West Elm
Sydney Sofa
999 dollars, westelm.com

Design Within Reach
Bantam Studio Sofa
1,925 dollars and up, dwr.com