Flame retardant free: Safer Sofa Foam Exchange


Replacing the old foam with flame retardant free foam at Foam Order in San Francisco. Foam Order is one of five furniture retailers participating in the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange.

Saul Ordonez of Foam Order replaces foam in a sofa cushion. Foam Order is one of the first retailers to go flame retardant free, through the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange program. Photo by Regina Ryerson


Your sofa may be making your family and pets sick. That’s because most foam sofas in the U.S. — old and new— are leaking toxic flame
 retardant chemicals. But happily, there are safer options! You can buy a flame retardant free sofa. Or, more affordably, swap the foam in your seat cushions for foam that’s flame retardant free.

For most U.S. consumers, flame retardant free sofas are not that easy to find. But a pilot program called Safer Sofa Foam Exchange aims to change that. I’ve included details later in this post, along with more photos.

Is your sofa leaking toxic flame retardants? You might find out here.


Why flame retardant free?

According to the Green Science Policy Institute (GSP), flame retardants commonly used in most foam furniture are linked to “… Endocrine disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function”. Flame retardants are also found in breast milk, water, soil and wildlife.

“Unfortunately, slip covers offer no protection from potentially harmful flame retardants”, says the Institute’s website. “The chemicals are not bound to the foam and can easily travel through a slip cover. The chemicals are constantly dispersing into the air, then settling in dust. Exposure comes primarily from ingesting contaminated dust”.

Leather upholstery doesn’t help, I’m surprised to learn. Flame retardants leak right through closed zippers, in amounts that can affect your health.

You may be thinking, “My sofa’s too old to matter”. But “Home sofas could be laced with several pounds of flame-retardant chemicals”, says Scientific American. So old flame retardant-treated sofas leak almost as much newer treated sofas.

UPDATE 7/22/14: According to GSP scientist Stephen Naylor, one study of a 30-year-old couch cushion found flame retardants at levels almost identical levels to those in new cushions. “The concentrations used are so high that they do not deplete even after several decades,” said Naylor.

Somehow, laws haven’t protected us all this time. Deborah Blum writes in Well blog, “Flame retardants are regulated in the United States primarily by the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which does not require studies of toxicity or long-term health effects for most industrial compounds before they are marketed”.


Launch of the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange

Before running out and replacing your sofa, consider replacing your problem foam with flame retardant free foam instead. You’ll save money! Not to mention, reusing your frame is less wasteful.

On June 17th, I attended the launch of Safer Sofa Foam Exchange, a pilot program created by GSP in partnership with local foam and upholstery businesses. The program, made possible by a new California standard, enables consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area to swap out their problem foam for new foam that’s flame retardant free.

The launch was hosted by Foam Order, one of four participating furniture retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area. All offer flame retardant free replacement foam. I’ve listed participating stores at the end of this post.

Speaking about the importance of going flame retardant free were James Redford, Co-Producer of Toxic Hot Seat,  Arlene Blum and Stephen Naylor, scientists at GSP; and Tony Stefani, Chairman of San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation. Also attending were representatives from the San Francisco Department of the Environment.


James Redford's latest directorial project, Toxic Hot Seat, is a documentary film that examines the potential health dangers of chemical flame retardants currently used in upholstered furniture made in the USA.

James Redford, co-producer of the HBO documentary Toxic Hot Seat, speaks at the launch of the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange in San Francisco June 17th, 2014. Photo: Regina Ryerson


How the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange Works

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, bring your flame retardant-treated seat cushions into a participating store. The store will replace your problem foam for foam that’s flame retardant free.

“Some sofas have polyurethane foam in the arms and backs, and foam in those areas will not be removed”, says Stephen Naylor. “Doing the foam exchange will remove 80-100% of flame retardants from your sofa”.

Foam collected through the program will be used for research into a responsible recycling or disposal solution for flame-retarded foams.

A portion of the sales through the program will be used to fund the research. At Foam Order, the portion is 10 percent. Learn more about disposing of your old foam.

Foam Order owner Michael Gorham invited me to photograph a foam exchange operation in progress. Supervisor Enrique Avevalo walked me through the process, explaining each step.

So, here’s my slideshow of a Safer Sofa Foam Exchange operation.


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Foam options that are flame retardant free

GSP estimates a cost of $45.00 to $95.00 per flame retardant free foam cushion, depending on cushion size, and the type of foam you want.

At Foam Order, you can choose from natural latex foam, or conventional polyurethane foam. Both are flame retardant free.

I prefer natural latex, myself. Sure, it costs more up front. But according to O Ecotextiles blog, “Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant. It is not highly  flammable, and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test. It has little or no off-gassing associated with it”.

Here’s another reason I prefer latex. Natural latex is made from a renewable natural resource, the rubber tree. Conventional polyurethane foam, on the other hand, is made from nonrenewable petroleum.

Natural latex foam is more durable than I’d assumed. “We guarantee our Natural Sense Organic Latex foam for ten years”, says Enrique.


Vote with your dollars!

One goal of the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange is to prove there’s a consumer demand for flame retardant free furniture. And to support retailers like Foam Order who are taking the lead.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up for the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange program here.

If you’re buying a new sofa in California, but live outside the San Francisco Bay Area, ask your furniture store manager for a flame retardant free sofa. Better yet, urge your furniture retailer to get on board with the program.

If you live outside California, there’s still hope! Here’s a list of retailers throughout the U.S. offering flame retardant free furniture.  Scroll down to see the list.

A sofa is made of more than its cushions, of course. And many other options are available.

For example, EcoTerric offers its Basal Living handcrafted collection. It uses “FSC certified hardwoods; chemical free natural upholstery options such as jute webbing; biodegradable, non-toxic rubber latex foam cushion; natural organic certified cotton…” EcoTerric, based in Sausalito, California, claims “lifetime durability” for its sofas. UPDATE 7/25/14: EcoTerric will soon have a new website, with many more products!

A great read on natural, flame retardant free options is Sofa Saga on Laura’s Rules blog. The blog’s creator, Laura MacCleery, is an attorney with Center For Science in the Public Interest, and a mom. Read about Laura’s epic research in Sofa Saga Part 5: A Happy Place to Sit. Laura finally settled on flame retardant free polyurethane foam, but researched many other options along the way.


Cleaning tips for flame retardant chemicals

Flame retardants are found in high concentrations in common household dust, especially in California. Toddlers and pets are most at risk, because they spend much of their time on the floor. Toddlers are at highest risk, because of hand-to-mouth ingestion.

GSP offers resources for consumers, including the following cleaning tips.

  • Make sure to wash your hands frequently, and always before eating.
  • Keep dust levels down by damp dusting and wet mopping.
  • Vacuum regularly with a HEPA filter.
  • Open windows to improve indoor air quality.

Dusting and vacuuming stirs up dust. So, during these tasks, I wear an N95 particulate respirator. Not only for dust particles contaminated with flame retardants, but also for particles contaminated with any potentially toxic chemicals. Here’s a brand I use, simply because my neighborhood hardware store conveniently carries it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, N95 filters at least 95% of airborne particles.  So I’m assuming N95 helps reduce my exposure to flame retardant-contaminated particles.

Flame retardants are not just about particles. They’re also semi-volatile, and N95 is ineffective against vapors. I don’t know how important the vapors are to our health. But at least I’m doing all I can on the particle front.


Participating furniture retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area

Four retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area are participating in the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange, including the following.

Foam Order, 1325 Howard St., San Francisco , CA

The Foam Store of Marin (a Foam Order branch) 813 A St. (Between 2nd and 3rd), San Rafael, CA

Kay Chesterfield Upholstery Workshop, 6365 Coliseum Way, Oakland, CA

Foam and Cushion, 3482 Clayton Rd, Concord, CA


Where to learn more

Reach out to your family and friends about flame retardants. You just might help one more kid avoid learning disabilities. Or help one more daughter reduce her chances of coming down with cancer.

Green Science Policy Institute Resource Page. If there’s a single best place to start learning about healthy homes, this is it.

Furniture without Flame Retardants: What the New Flammability Standard TB117-­‐2013 Means for You, Green Science Policy Institute.

Safer Sofa Foam Exchange Announced for Bay Area, Healthy Building Science, February 19, 2014. A great blog post. And a terrific blog, by Healthy Building Science, a environmental testing service.

Toxic Hot Seat Movie, co-produced by James Redford and Kirby Walker. Find out how the tobacco industry set up a fake firefighter’s association, to push for the TB 117 standard. That’s the standard that led toxic flame retardants getting into our foam.

Playing With Fire, Chicago Tribune’s six-part exposé on the flame retardant industry, May, 2012.

The more we protect ourselves and our families from all toxic chemicals, the healthier we’ll all be. Reducing sources of flame retardants in our homes, and thorough cleaning, is a great place to start!

Have you participated in the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange? What’s your experience been?


Copyright & copy 2010, Regina Ryerson. All rights reserved.