Couch Detective: My Hunt For A Chemical-Free Couch

BY ON May 14, 2013

Red couch discarded on the road

There’s been a lot of buzz about a team of researchers from Duke University and UC Berkeley who found that 85% of couch cushions contain toxic or untested flame retardants.

The study was based upon 102 couch samples (including one from Moms Clean Air Force’s Public Health Policy and Outreach Manager, Molly Rauch), which were gathered from around the country and tested for the presence of flame retardant chemicals. An alarming 41% of the samples were found to contain chlorinated Tris, a carcinogenic flame retardant which was banned for use in baby pajamas in the 1970s.

When hearing about this study, I realized that my beloved couch in the center of my family room could be, and probably was, among the toxic many. My couch has spent countless hours with our family of five cuddled up watching movies, reading or just hanging out. And to think that all this time we were probably breathing in toxic chemicals released from our couch.

How could this happen?

Unfortunately, the current laws that are meant to protect us from harmful chemicals are weak, outdated and not doing their job. Our couches aren’t tested before hitting the market, and chemical manufacturers are able to keep secret most of the ingredients in their chemical formulations. These dangerous chemicals found on, and in our couches migrate into the air inside and outside our homes, exposing us to harmful carcinogens every day.

A little bit of good news:

This year California will take a big step to protect public health by updating its furniture flammability standard. According to Environmental Health News:

The proposed standard will improve fire safety by addressing the place where fires start (the outer fabric of furniture instead of the inner foam) and designing safety tests targeted for smoldering cigarettes, the leading cause of fire-related deaths in homes, rather than open flames.”

Also, the U.S. EPA recently announced that it would assess twenty chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act — the vast majority of the chemicals are flame retardants.

Become a couch detective!

As with any purchase, it’s important to be an informed consumer. Use your powerful voice and become a couch detective! Ask questions. Contact the retailer directly to verify that you’re receiving a product free from flame retardant chemicals. Not only will this ensure that your product is safe for you and your family, but it will also notify retailers that we, as consumers, care about our products and we won’t purchase products that are toxic. We have the power to make a difference.

Wondering where to buy a chemical free couch? I detected a few brands that have made a good faith effort to eliminate chlorinated Tris, but their efforts fall short by replacing a known toxin with alternatives that could be just as harmful.

Arhaus

I contacted Arhaus, a moderate to high-priced furniture retailer, and they confirmed that their upholstery does NOT contain chlorinated Tris—it was removed years ago. When asked what was being used in place of chlorinated Tris, the Arhaus design team responded with “The specific chemicals used to meet flammability standards are not published…at this point the information is more defined by specific exclusions, such as chlorinated tris. We refer customers to the Certipur website. We all hope that in the near future flammability requirements are eliminated altogether.”

This response made me angry and confirmed just what I was afraid of: Companies are under no obligation to share the chemicals they’re using in the products we’re buying…and they don’t.

IKEA

IKEA took the pledge to phase out chlorinated Tris by August 2010. It has been replaced by: “an organo-phosphorous compound which gets incorporated into the polymer matrix of the foam filling.” After doing a little leg work to find out what exactly an “organo-phosphorous compound” could be, I found the list of possiblilities to be long and full of options that I don’t want in my couch.

Brands that make the non-toxic cut:

Unfortunately there aren’t many options to recommend in the low to moderate price points. Many companies in this price range have taken an active stance on removing chlorinated Tris, but have replaced it with something which is potentially just as toxic.

The only low price option is to buy a futon frame with a folded futon. Because they are not made with flammable foam, they don’t have the flame retardants inside — but of course, you have to check with the manufacturer.” ~ MCAF’s, Molly Rauch

There are a few companies that truly stand out when it comes to non-toxic and sustainable couches — all of them are pretty pricey:

Ekla Home

According to their website, Ekla Home prides itself on striving to make the “least toxic furniture on the planet.” Each piece of furniture is made from FSC Certified Wood, non-toxic adhesives, recycled steel springs and zero-VOC finishes. They use NO chemical fire retardants.

Cisco Brothers

Cisco has been longtime supporters of chemical-free furniture manufacturing. Their furniture is crafted without harmful chemicals including toxic fire-retardants…and comes to you with a big price tag.

Viesso

This furniture line has created a “Green Collection.” Consumers can opt for a chemical-free couch which includes: no fire retardants (with “Extreme Green” option), natural jute webbing and wool deck, fabrics that are natural, recycled or both, select the “Extreme Green” option and you get a sofa with 100% natural latex on the arms, back frames and cushion filling and locally sourced hardwood frames. The site is very simple to use and allows you to customize most couches. I spent some time customizing a few couches with eco-friendly options — the price range rang in somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000.

EcoSelect

EcoSelect Furniture is custom-made and offers the option to purchase couch cushions that contain foam that has not been treated with flame retardant chemicals.

Take action NOW.

It’s time to take the burden away from the consumer and place it where it belongs – with the couch industry. Passage of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013, would strengthen the way our government regulates toxic chemicals by requiring more thorough health testing of products BEFORE these chemicals end up in the bodies of our children.

Photo credit: rustman via photopin cc

JOIN MCAF

TOPICS: Clean Air Rules and Regulations, Toxics

  • Sarah B

    What about down filled couches? Are those any better?

    • http://twitter.com/groovygreenlivi Lori Popkewitz Alper

      Sarah- The concern is with flame retardants and other chemicals used to treat the couches. I would suggest contacting the company directly and asking what they use.

  • Molly Rauch

    Thank you Lori for this great round-up of how few options we have as consumers. We need better options, better testing, better disclosure, better regulation.

    • http://twitter.com/groovygreenlivi Lori Popkewitz Alper

      You’re welcome Molly. There’s so much room for improvement on all of the above. If we, as consumers, continue to demand non-toxic products hopefully our collective voices will be heard.

  • Debadoodles

    I would love to own eco-friendly furniture. However, I just checked out all of the companies above and none of them offer reclining chairs. I require comfort due to back problems. They need to offer comfort as well as green!

    • http://twitter.com/groovygreenlivi Lori Popkewitz Alper

      Hopefully over time selections and price range will improve. Green furniture is a relatively new offering with lots of room for improvement!

  • Lindsay

    Lori, did you research the Futon shop in CA? They recently came out with announcement of some FR free couches/futons. I haven’t delved into the details yet. Great post, I can’t WAIT for the Safe Chemicals Act to be passed. Price shouldn’t be a barrier for safety.

  • Annika

    I have also been researching sofas that do not contain flame retardants here in the Northeast. The company called Lee Industries sells a very well-made frame and their NaturalLee cushions can be ordered without flame retardants (although you have to pay about $500 for them NOT to put the stuff in the foam). They also carry a sturdy micro-fiber material called D’Oro Suede which is made from recycled polyester and is manufactured in the U.S.

    • ScienceGuy

      Polyester can have petrochemicals that can be highly toxic.

  • Larry Loring

    What a scam it is the way the chemical companies have to stick their chemicals in all our products. Why should it cost more for a couch without the chemicals than with? We ought to have the right to decide what kinds of risks we want to live with. Many of us who don’t smoke would rather go with the risk of a burning couch, than a couch that has toxic chemicals in it. Why do the chemical companies use us a the guinea pigs, instead of fully testing their products for safety. It’s totally unacceptable that the majority of our furniture and bedding has these dangerous chemicals in them. My wife had aggressive cancer last year, and my daughters both have had hormone issues. They all sit on our toxic furniture and sleep in toxic bedding. Thanks a lot for exposing my family to these poisons. In this day and age, we can’t do better than that? We can’t afford the price of the furniture that is specially made to avoid the chemicals, so we have to be exposed to these known toxins. What does the EPA really do? Why aren’t they working for us? It seems like they work for The Big Boys with the money, the chemical companies. It’s disgusting that their isn’t a powerful protective group out there, like the EPA is supposed to be.

    Step up Senators and do your job. Rattle the cages of those who are exposing us to these toxic materials. Act like your mad, like we are. Don’t accept that they are trying to protect us from fire danger. We know that, but why expose us to something as bad or worse. We’ll gladly take the risk of surviving a fire to a lifetime of using toxic furniture. Everybody wonders why there is so much cancer. Well wake up and smell the toxins! Go at them like it’s your wife or child with the cancer caused by these poisons, please!

    Sincerely, Larry

    • Alias Crazy Lady :(

      I totally agree with you…. We all have suffered something since early 2009, thousands in doctor bills, husband and i bith with cancer, daughter like you said with hormone issues, another keeps fainting, little guy has asthma and we just found out it was due to toxic mold in our home AND in our air condtioning due to improper installation ten years ago and of course they have gone out of business. Since I have the weakest immune system I got hit the hardest with a long list of problems. The worst being MCS from being over exposed to stuff for so long that now I can’t even have anything in my home, no deodorants, most cleaners, had to throw our couch out and pillows and two mattresses. Every time I walk into Payless shoes I about go into antaphylatic shock. I can’t believe what most shoes are made of these days. Not sure what I’m going to due to replace couch and mattresses at this point. Insurance isn’t paying for anything. I thought about buying used from a clean respectable home because I had heard you could do that to reduce your outgassing issue, BUT what if they have mold and don’t know it then I’m bringing it back in. Anyway just wanted to say that I never realized (even though I would never even drink from a arden hose as a child or anything from plastic all these years because of the taste) how much chemicals are in things and how damaging they are. To me it seems like everything is being outsourced to keep prices as low as possible and who knows what is really in what!

      • bird

        HI Crazy Lady,
        I too have MCS due to sucking in unvented x-ray processing chemicals! I know exactly how you feel. I can’t be near anything without my face breaking out, and my tongue can taste pesticides, Never can go anywhere because I can’t control my environment. I lost everything due to this exposure. I did buy a bed from European Sleepworks, but it’s not the most comfy. I so want a new couch, but I can’t trust that it will be safe for me.

  • Sue

    Hello everyone. Thanks for all your postings. I’m looking for a non-toxic reclining sofa also (like Debadoodles who posted 2 months ago). If anyone knows of where to get a leather or other type of reclining sofa, please let me know. I was looking at Santambrogio Italian sofas (made in Italy) but they are very expensive. Has anyone bought a sofa from them – if their couches are non-toxic? Thank you… I am in the Bay area by the way.

  • Maro

    Thanks for the article. I started to become aware of the carcinogenic fire retardants when looking for a mattress, and didn’t realize the chemicals were also used on mos upholstered furniture. FYI, I learned from the guy on the http://perfectlatexmattress.com/ website a lot of information. They sell latex matresses free of FR. The price point is higher, as you mentioned though. Why are these more expensive if they are skipping a step in the manufacturing process?

  • bird

    I too want a recliner. I Have EI and cannot have fire retardant or formaldehyde anywhere near me

  • Anja

    I just got rid of two brand new mattresses and a couch because I could not breath with the awful formaldehyde emissions. I need to find an affordable place for a couple of recliners or a couch, 100% voc free. Any advise would be appreciated.

  • Canthandlechemicals

    i recently bought an IKEA couch and it was so full of chemicals that my entire room smelled toxic. I have chemical sensitivity from a lot of aspartame ingestion though my early years and the couch made me completely sick (achy lungs, dizzy and tingly leg). We tried keeping windows open with a fan for days to see if it would vent out but after a week and desperate to be able to feel better we just gave the couch away!

  • Rebecca M

    Don’t forget Eco Balanza out of Seattle! We purchased a couch and love seat from them earlier this year and LOVE them! We are local, so we were able to visit throughout the build process, and we could even visit the farms they source from if we wanted to! http://www.ecobalanza.com/

  • Ross Endicott

    We removed all the flame retardants from our sofas to offer everyday consumers better choice. We are not 100% organic, nor do we try to resolve issues for people with chemical sensitivity. Our smaller scale, zero flame retardant models are customizable and we will ship anywhere but California (until they drop TB117). Visit our website for more info at condofurniture.com

    • Ross Endicott

      Our zero flame retardant furniture line may now be shipped to California

  • berkeleypurehome

    hi. if anyone would like to test their couch … or baby mattress, clothing, leather goods… berkeleypurehome will test samples for $10 a piece. we can also recommend vendors of organic / chemical free furniture.

    • Al Singer

      I’d love some recommendations. Should we get in touch through your website? If so who should I address my query to?
      Have you noted any benefit to using an recommended air purifier to mitigate the chemical in furniture and upholstery?
      Thanks for your help. : )

  • clancey519

    I contacted Arhaus today and they would not confirm that their couches did not contain chlorinated Tris. They did give me a list of the flame retardants used in their couches:
    ————————-
    The chemicals used in the California 117 Foams are:

    Phosphorus Compounds – Supresta AC073

    Brominated (non PBDE) Compounds – Chemtura, Firemaster 600

    Chlorinated Compounds – Gulbrandsen CP -2

    Melamine – Cytec, Melamine

    ————————
    Does anyone know whether this in fact excludes chlorinated Tris?

  • Lorene

    My dog woke up with a strange sickness two months ago, involving extreme dizziness and vomiting. After a few hundred dollars, she was finally diagnosed with “vestibular syndrome,” even though, the vet said, usually only older dogs get it. Now I think it’s the damn Ikea couch, since when I fell asleep on it I woke up feeling dizzy and weird too. Nice.

  • Larm

    Have you found anything yet that you would consider safe? We need to find something but don’t want to spend a fortune!

  • Michael Jimenez

    Dear All

    WE HAVE FOAM WITHOUT FIRE RETARDANTS ADDED

    MICHAEL’S CUSTOM BUILT UPHOLSTERY uses it to build new green furniture and reupholstery, as well as just replacing old foam with new

    As you may know the chemical companies have just filed a lawsuit to reverse that law in california. I am not sure how long we will be able to sell non fire retardant polyfoam. In the past we used more expensive materials to be green. overall the cost is slowly coming down.

    best
    michaelsupholstery.com