couch

You probably chose that couch in your living room for its look. Maybe for the comfort factor? Style? Color? What you didn’t have control over when picking out that favorite piece of living room furniture was what type of chemicals went into it.

Recent studies have found dangerous levels of flame retardants in home furniture, especially the beloved couch. One study published in Environmental Science and Technology in November 2012 found that 85 percent of the 102 couches tested contained toxic chemicals in the cushions’ foam. One common chemical in the samples tested was chlorinated Tris, a known carcinogen that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s due to its health dangers.

Why are there hazardous chemicals in my couch?

Now, chlorinated Tris and other toxic chemicals are readily poured into couch foam. How come, you health-conscious couch owners ask? Furniture manufacturers have to meet certain fire safety regulations. The Environmental Working Group points to fire safety standards in California for creating an environmental and health hazard for much of the country. These standards require that millions of pounds of toxic fire retardants be added to foam furniture.

In response to the couch study, the American Chemistry Council said in a statement: “This study confirms what we would expect to find: Furniture manufacturers use flame retardants to meet established fire safety standards, which help save lives. There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems.” Yet, according to the Alliance For Toxic-Free Fire Safety, these requirements haven’t actually resulted in fewer fire-related deaths in California compared to other states. And, they create seriously concerning health issues.

What’s so bad about flame retardants?

Flame retardants found in couches and other furniture off-gas into the air and can linger in household dust, possibly contaminating a home for years. A recent study by researchers at the Silent Spring Institute found chlorinated Tris and 43 other flame retardant chemicals at concerning levels in household dust in California homes. Of those chemicals, many were now banned chemicals that remained in household dust over the years.

Unfortunately as one dangerous chemical flame retardant is banned, another equally untested chemical takes its place. In the couch study, many of the older couches tested contained polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), a flame retardant widely used after the ban of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the 1970s. When it was discovered that PBDE was just as harmful, it was phased out around 2005 and the industry had to look to other alternatives to take its place. Now, as chlorinated Tris has been associated with neurological problems, cancer and hormone disruption, the industry is looking for a replacement.

So, what can you do about your couch?

Couches can be quite an investment. If you’re not able to replace yours, make sure to repair any rips, so that the foam isn’t exposed. You can also vacuum your home with a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter to reduce household dust.

In the market for a new couch? While it will likely be difficult to find a couch without some kind of flame retardants incorporated, try to search for upholstered furniture made of natural materials like wool, cotton and hemp.

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