What’s that smell?!

Anyone who has ever purchased a new piece of upholstered furniture might recall a distinct odor brought into the home or office along with the happily anticipated new addition. After a while the smell dissipates to a point where you no longer notice it, but you might wonder what it is, and may even experience unpleasant physical reactions in the form of dizziness, nausea or more severe symptoms. As awareness of indoor environmental hazards grows, the home and office, where most of us spend more than half of our lives, are getting closer scrutiny.

Why are there flame retardants in my furniture?

The worst pollutants brought into our homes have been brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) which infiltrate our indoor environment as dust filtering out of our furniture (and certain other household items). Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are another culprit, “off-gassing” harmful chemicals into the air from formaldehyde-based glues used in plywoods and wood composites as well as in many textile and wood surface finishes. PBDEs — similar to PCBs and dioxins, two of the most toxic classes of chemicals — came into regular use in the mid 1970s, largely as a result of the California Furniture Flammability Standard (TB-117). This law required the use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture and baby items, resulting in widespread use of materials treated with these inexpensive chemicals.

How can I avoid harmful chemicals?

The best way to begin addressing the problem of indoor pollution is to ask plenty of questions. We as consumers should demand to know exactly what chemicals are in our products and any health problems associated with them. Furniture stores, designers and upholstery shops want to do their part for the environment as much as any of us, and customer interest in these important issues translates to significant “grassroots” impact as suppliers and manufacturers begin to incorporate requests for non-toxic materials into their offerings.

What are the healthy alternatives to look for in upholstered furniture?

Organic/natural upholstered furniture is a good alternative for people with acute chemical sensitivities or anyone just looking to create a cleaner indoor environment. Here are some materials to look for in ‘organic’ furniture, or they can be used in re-upholstery of your existing chairs, sofas and ottomans:

  • Wool Batting – an accepted flame retardant substitute, used as the outermost layer (under the cover fabric) in upholstery cushioning and also naturally resistant to dust mites, bacteria and mold (common human allergens).
  • Natural Latex Foam – produced without harsh chemicals provides an alternative to urethane foam as a core cushioning element.
  • Organic Cotton – farmed without the use of pesticides or herbicides, used in place of standard cotton as an upholstery padding layer.
  • Organic/Natural Fabrics – There is a growing range of organic textiles as well as low-impact natural fibers such as hemp, flax, linen or bamboo. Fabric companies are adding more “green” choices to their fabric lines every year.
  • FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified Wood Products – sourced from tree farms which employ sustainable forestry management practices.
  • Non-Toxic Wood Finishes – water based glue and natural finishes such as tung oil and beeswax contain no VOCs and will not off-gas harmful air pollutants.

Join the movement – speak out!

As our environmental knowledge expands and we continue to give voice to our concerns, our local furniture stores, upholstery shops and design services will be better able to provide a wider choice of healthy materials to suit our individual needs.

This is the transcript of an article written by Carla Pyle in 2009 for the Ecozone section of a Bozeman, Montana newspaper. See our Alternative Upholstery Materials page for up-to-date information on available materials and resources for upholsterers as well as DiY solutions.

See ‘How to Avoid Harmful Flame Retardant Chemicals in your Furniture’ for updated information (November, 2014) to help you make the right choice for your furniture.

Feel free to share your thoughts on green upholstery in the comments below, and join the mailing list to keep up with the conversation.