Friday, September 27, 2019

Upholstered Furniture Buying Guide




Our family sofa is pretty much the heart of our home.  It is the first place my kids gravitate too as soon as they wake up (we get up pretty early during school days and they tumble out of bed downstairs and straight to lie on the sofa), it is the place we cuddle  as a family on movie nights or, often, to do our after school reading and even bedtime reading.   It has hosted naps, playtime gymnastics/ ‘par core sessions’- and countless chill out sessions.  

We recently went through the process of purchasing a new sofa for our, more formal, living room.  Once again I was reminded that furniture buying is no longer as simple as choosing a style and fabric combo.   You have to ask questions- you have to know what questions to ask to make sure that the sofa you are bringing home is not full of well known harmful toxins.  

And so, my upholstery furniture buying guide. 

But first,  you might be asking yourself "What “harmful chemicals”  can be in my sofa?"
Unbeknownst to many, some of the most well studied  and harmful chemicals are often found in sofas and other upholstered furniture. 

Fabric, insert materials, glues, fabric treatments  and more can emit known harmful chemicals into the air that you breaths. 


What follows is a brief furniture buying guide that will include:

1.  A list of chemicals that are commonly found in upholstered furniture
2. A brief description of why these chemicals  are harmful
3.  How to identify if a piece of furniture contains these toxins  
4.  What specifically to ask the manufacturers to make sure your new furniture does not contain these chemicals.




  • Formaldehyde Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.  It is extremely common in upholstery fabrics:  mostly to give it a wrinkle free appearance.   
Additionally, if the body of the furniture is made of composite wood (plywood or mdf instead of solid wood) formaldehyde will likely emit from the adhesives used in these wood products. The US has new restrictions for formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products which are pretty strict (TSCA Title VI), but if you want no formaldehyde you need to specifically ask: .


How to avoid it: 
Avoid wrinkle free fabrics:  always ask the manufacturer if the fabric is treated in any way.   

For wood furniture (or furniture with wood legs or frame ) choose solid wood frames instead of composite wood frames.   If it is a composite wood frame specifically ask if they use a formaldehyde free adhesive ( these would be labelled as as NAF (no formaldehyde used).

What to ask the manufacturer: 
  1. “ Does this fabric contain any wrinkle resistant  treatment?”
  2. “ Are the wood components solid wood or composite wood?   If it is composite wood do you use a ‘no added formaldehyde’  ‘NAF’ adhesive  

Previously required by law in California- flame retardant chemicals are no longer required, but are still used in many upholstered furniture - mostly those that have polyurethane foam inserts.  This class of chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins  and carcinogenic.

How to avoid it:  
Furniture that does not contain flame retardant chemicals should contain the TB117-2013 label which should read:  “The upholstery materials in this product contain NO added flame retardant chemicals.”   If you cannot find the label or it is not clear ask the manufacturer.

What to ask the manufacturer:
“Are any flame retardant chemicals added to the sofa?”

  • Antimicrobials:   
Antimicrobials are more often seen in outdoor furniture textiles (and woods) to prevent furniture from harboring mold and mildew.  These chemicals are endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic our hormones and can create an imbalance in our natural hormone balance.   They can also lead to antimicrobial resistance.  

How to avoid it
Read the description and avoid any furniture labelled as ‘mold or mildew resistant’ or microban.  Ask the manufacturer directly if any antimicrobial finishes are added 

What to ask the manufacturer
“ Is the product mildew or mold resistant?  If so, how do you achieve this?  Are any antimicrobials chemicals added?”

  • PFAS chemicals: 

PFAS chemicals are a family of chemicals applied to pretty much all furniture that claims to be stain or water resistant or have ‘performance fabric”. 

While the two best known PFAS chemicals ( PFOA and PFOS of Teflon infamy) were phased out due to toxicity concerns related to cancer and other health effect, there are hundreds ( yes hundreds) of new PFAS chemicals currently in use linked to neurotoxicity, reproductive problems, birth defects, developmental delays and immune system suppression

How to Avoid: 
Avoid “ performance fabric,” stain proof and water proofing fabrics in furniture, carpets, rugs

What to ask the manufacturer:
  “ Are you fabrics water or stain resistant?  If so, how do you achieve this? Specifically:  do you use C6 or other PFAS chemicals?”  you can also just ask “do you offer fabrics that have not been treated to be stain nor water resistant?”


One of the biggest sources of VOC emissions in upholstered furniture is the insert material.  The most common, and affordable,  types of sofa inserts are made of polyurethane foam.   PU foam is made of petroleum and thus will off gas VOCs into the air for years.   VOCs can lead to headaches, dizziness, fatigue and long term exposure to some have been linked to cancer.  

How To Avoid:  
A lot of VOC can be avoided by avoiding polyurethane foam.  Instead, try down inserts or GOLS certified latex inserts

What to ask the manufacturer: 
“What material is used for your cushion inserts?”

Benzene:  
often used in solvents for waxes, resins, and plastics, also used in glues, paints and the production of nylon and synthetic fibers.  Indoor air has been found to contain higher levels of benzene than outdoor air due to its use in furniture.   Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.



Labels to look for
Some labels can really give you clues as to the whether a piece of furniture is safer than others.  Look for these labels:
  • FSC Certified wood:  any piece of furniture that contains wood (in the frame or in the body) should be sourced from FSC certified wood.  this assures wood is sourced in a sustainable way from a forrest that is being managed to preserve the natural ecosystem and meeting the highest environmental, social and economic standards.
  • - Greenguard Gold Certified:  This certification is to regulate the emissions/ chemicals that can be given off by 'indoor use' products and that can thus affect the indoor air quality- it includes strict emissions (NOT zero emissions)  for formaldehyde, benzene, dioxane, Methylene chloride,Phenol, Styrene, Toluene, Vinyl Acetate
  •  TSCA Title VI compliant: Legally required as of this year in the US on all composite wood products- this standard limits the formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products
  • NAF: made without formaldehyde based adhesives 
*
*These three certifications will make sure that the formaldehyde levels are kept at the lowest possible levels.

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