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Unfortunately, the current laws that are meant to protect us from harmful chemicals are weak, outdated and not doing their job.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.


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 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.


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 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



TOPICS: Clean Air Rules and Regulations, Mom Detective, Toxics