Post updated 1/19/2016
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.
Flame retardant free options in the San Francisco Bay Area
Flame retardant free options are getting easier to find, thanks to a pilot program in the San Francisco Bay Area called Safer Sofa Foam Exchange.
You can sign up for the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange through the Green Science Policy Institute. Here you can also find S.F. Bay Area stores offering to replace your foam, whether or not you sign up for the program. And stores offering new flame retardant free furniture.
You don’t have to sign up for the program to go flame retardant free. But through the program, you can have your flame retardant levels measured in your body, and in your home.
Options for anywhere in the U.S.
The more demand for flame retardant free options, the more retailers will supply. That’s the whole idea behind the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange.
At any upholstery shop, you can request flame retardant free foam. No luck? Try another shop.
Shopping for new furniture? Ask store managers for flame retardant free options. You can find flame retardant free options through Green Science Policy Institute (scroll down). Or through Center for Environmental Health. Be sure to read buying guidelines on each website.
I observed a Safer Sofa Foam Exchange operation at Foam Order, a participating retailer in San Francisco, owned by Michael Gorham. Supervisor Enrique Arevalo walked me through the process, explaining each step.
Check out the photos I took, in my Foam Order post. Click on this sample photo to see my entire slideshow.
Learn more about the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange program later in this post.
Why flame retardant free?
According to the Green Science Policy Institute (GSP), flame retardants commonly used in most foam furniture are linked to the following.
- Endocrine disruption
- Reproductive toxicity
- Adverse effects on fetal and child development
- Neurologic function
- Polluting breast milk, water, soil and wildlife
Update 11/2/14: A study published by the National Institutes of Health has raised a potential link to the following.
- Bone loss
Update 6/10/14: Rodale News lists even more links. The ones I’m hearing about for the first time, specifically, include the following.
- Liver problems
- Asthma and allergies
- Pre-term Birth, and Low Birth Weight
Eating, sleeping and breathing flame retardants
Update November 12, 2014: Science Daily reports that people with the highest levels of specific flame retardants in their body “live in homes that had the highest quantity of the respective chemical in dust”.
In the U.S., California house dust has the among the highest levels of flame retardants. Hey, that’s my state!
Toddlers and pets are exposed the most, thanks to all that time they spend on the floor. Then there’s that hand-to-mouth habit of theirs. Or, in the case of pets, paw-to-mouth.
But we’re all inhaling dust. Constantly. And all sorts of chemical contaminants along with it. Indoor air quality researchers are just starting to study the flame retardants we’re inhaling, and what it might mean for our health. Stay tuned!
New or old sofa: No age discrimination here
Think your sofa’s too new or old to matter? “Home sofas could be laced with several pounds of flame-retardant chemicals”, says Scientific American. So the older flame retardant-treated sofas leak almost as much as the new.
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.
So, your foam will never reform itself, and go flame retardant free. Not without your help.
Covering your sofa won’t help. Sorry!
Why bother with a flame retardant free sofa, when you can just cover it?
“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 won’t help either, I’m surprised to learn. Flame retardant chemicals pass right through closed zippers, with ease.
Why haven’t laws protected us?
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”.
Thanks to GSP and other leaders, progress is underway. But meanwhile, most of us are living with this major health hazard.
Meanwhile, here’s what you can do.
Launch of the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange
Before running out and replacing your sofa, consider replacing your toxic foam with flame retardant free foam instead. You’ll save money! Not to mention, reusing your frame is less wasteful than landfilling it.
On June 17th, 2014, 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 the retailers in the San Francisco Bay Area participating in the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange.
Speaking about the importance of going flame retardant free were James Redford, Co-Producer of the documentary film 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.
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.
Learn more about Safer Sofa Foam Exchange.
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.
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.
A sofa’s 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.
Clean like your health, and your loved ones’ health depends on it. Because it does!
- 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.
Update 10/20/14: My vacuuming recommendation: Detail upholstery and beds, along with nooks and crannies throughout your house. And of course, your floors. The one machine that can do it all is a canister vacuum, vs upright.
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.
Where to learn more
Toxic Hot Seat film, 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.
Green Science Policy Institute Resource Page. If there’s a single best place to start learning about healthy homes, this is it. Here you can also stay up-to-date with any new regulations.
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 by Healthy Building Science, a environmental testing service.
The most important thing you can do
Reach out to your family and friends about going flame retardants free. You just might help one more kid avoid developmental problems or cancer. And that’s just for starters.
Have you opted for new and safer furniture? Or participated in the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange? What’s your experience been?