Although I would have been happy to keep our decade-old sofa set for a few more years, my two-year-old helped me decide it was time to purchase new sofas.
That peeling of the leather didn't happen all by itself. The sofas actually didn't look too terrible (just a bit weathered and old) before my two-year-old daughter discovered her first little tiny piece of peeling leather. Or maybe she scratched it and made it peel. At any rate, once she got going, our sofa and loveseat were looking more and more hideous all the time. In addition, I was finding tiny pieces of the brown leather, cured and dyed with heaven knows what, all over my house. Probably my two-year-old was eating them too because she still sticks everything in her mouth. The final straw was when my two-year-old used her nail to slice through the worn leather of the seat and exposed the polyurethane foam saturated with flame retardants inside the cushion.
Flame Retardant Chemicals Are Toxic and Don't Prevent Fires
What's so bad about flame retardant chemicals? The short answer is, flame retardants are both toxic and ineffective. They have been linked to neurological deficits, developmental problems, impaired fertility and other health risks. Just to add insult to injury, they also don't really help prevent fires, according to fire experts. Instead, they just make the smoke from fires more toxic for the occupants and the fire personnel. The sordid tale of the rise of the flame retardant industry (in cahoots with the tobacco industry, no less) is an interesting and instructive read about how regulation sometimes mainly serves corporate interests, and how even the press can be duped if untruths and fake science are repeated often enough.
Foam Furniture a Significant Source of Flame Retardants
Of course, I have no illusions that we weren't being exposed to the foam and its accompanying flame retardant chemicals even before my daughter sliced through the leather to expose the foam. Scientist Arlene Blum found that the level of flame retardants in her home's dust dropped drastically (from 97 to 3 parts per million) once she got rid of her sofa. Scientists explain that every single time you sit down on your sofa it creates a little puff of polyurethane foam dust. Particularly older foam, which is beginning to disintegrate. And that foam is chock-full of flame retardant chemicals. And when I say "chock-full" I really mean it. Sofas typically contain two to three pounds of flame retardant chemicals.
But the risks associated with foam and the accompanying toxic dust were easier to ignore before my two-year-old sliced open the cushion and exposed the yellowed brittle foam inside. (Yes, I did try to tape the slit. She immediately pulled it off.) I knew it was only a matter of time before she began shoving her hand inside the cushion and yanking out fist-fulls of foam. And that was just more than I could stand. So, time for new sofas.
My Flame Retardant-Free Sofas
So what did I do? Instead of buying a sofa from one of the few eco-friendly companies that sell natural sofas, I chose to purchase two futons from The Futon Shop. My new sofas/ futons have mattresses made of organic cotton and natural latex. The standard flame retardant used on these mattresses is borate, but with a doctor's note you don't even have to get that. (Note that borate or boric acid is definitely one of the safer flame retardants out there, along with hydrated silica.) The futon frames are solid wood. The mattresses are actually made in San Francisco, which gives me added confidence that they contain exactly what they say they do. Also, when I walk into the shop and start rattling off questions about what everything is made of and what kind of flame retardants things contain, the salesperson actually knows what I am talking about!
One of the plusses of the futon as sofa setup is that I was able to purchase waterproof covers (PVC-free, of course!) for the mattresses, thus protecting my precious investment in eco-friendlier furniture from the inevitable mishaps and fluids associated with young children. I put the waterproof mattress covers on the mattresses and then the durable washable polyester cover on top of that (you can also purchase cotton and organic cotton covers, but they are a bit higher maintenance).
Now, I'll be honest. While I at times appreciate the firmness of my sofas (particularly the back portion), these sofas are not as comfy as my old sofas for long-term viewing. They have no springs. After sitting on one for more than a couple hours, your bottom starts to feel it. Possibly not a bad thing. On the other hand, they are rather handy when a lot of family comes in town. Best of all, when my children are older, and I perhaps decide to buy an actual sofa sofa, I can simply use my futons as beds.
Interested in Buying Flame Retardant-Free Furniture? I've Got Good News and Bad News.
The good news is it looks like toxic flame retardants are on their way out.
In January 2014, a new flame retardant standard went into effect into California. This new standard frees furniture manufacturers from injecting toxic flame retardants into their products. Because California is such a large market, this revision to the controversial TB 117 has the potential to reshape the national furniture market. Keep in mind, however, that the new regulation does not forbid manufacturers from using the toxic chemical, or from selling you their old stock of flame retardant laden furniture. It just makes it possible for them to manufacture furniture without the toxic chemicals that meets the state's flammability standard.
And just a few weeks ago, Governor Brown signed a bill (SB 1019) that will require labeling of furniture treated with flame retardant chemicals. This law goes into effect January 2015.
The bad news is that, at this exact moment, it is still a challenge to find a sofa without flame retardant chemicals.
Because of this, I was hoping not to replace my sofas until new regulations were fully in effect and flame retardant-free sofas were readily available, identifiable, and affordable. No such luck for me! Fortunately, there are some helpful resources available to help you find furniture without flame retardants.
Resources to Help You Locate Furniture without Flame Retardants.
Furniture Without Flame Retardants (Green Science Policy Institute): This one-page PDF lists companies that make furniture free of toxic flame retardants and companies that replace the old foam in your furniture with new flame retardant-free foam.
Safer Sofas: How do Major Furniture Stores Compare? (NRDC). To help consumers identify where they can purchase furniture without added flame retardants, NRDC surveyed major U.S. furniture retailers, such as IKEA, Pottery Barn and Sears. This brief document reports which companies currently manufacture furniture without toxic flame retardants, and which companies are committed to phasing out flame retardant chemicals in the future. This a terrific resource to help you while waiting for the new laws to take effect in California and, hopefully, eventually nationwide.
Old Sofa Dilemma
Let's say you manage to replace your old sofa with a sofa free of toxic flame retardants. What should you do with the old sofa? Currently, there is no good solution. Donation means your toxic sofa could end up in the home of a lower-income family. Throwing it away means all those chemicals end up in the landfill (and eventually the air and soil). And there are no special recycling or disposal programs for that toxic foam. I personally found the donation choice more palatable than the landfill one. After all, I would have been willing to use my old sofas several more years if I didn't have a toddler who was going to continue dismantling them inside my home. I gave mine away on Craig's List to a college-aged kid.
- Flame Retardants: Toxic, Ineffective, Everywhere
- Avoiding Toxins in Baby Products
- Non-toxic Crib Mattresses
- In Search of the Affordable Natural Bed
photo credit: foka kytutr via photopin cc