Do you know that your couch may be toxic to you and your kids? A weak federal chemical safety law and poorly designed state fire safety standards fail to protect Americans from thousands of dangerous chemicals like fire retardants.
Ten years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and health advocates forced fire retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, from the market. These chemicals were showing up in people’s bodies, and research suggested that they disrupted hormone signaling and children’s developing brains and nervous systems. In 2008, EWG testing found that toddlers’blood contained nearly three times the levels of PBDEs of their parents’ bodies.
While most PBDEs are no longer used in couches, the broken federal chemical law allows other potentially problematic chemicals to be substituted. Last year, EWG teamed up with Duke University scientists to look at concentrations of these alternative fire retardants in more than 20 mothers and children. The urine of every mother and child tested yielded evidence of exposure to TDCIPP, a cancer-causing fire retardant. In fact, when the participants’ bodies were tested for a chemical biomarker left when TDCIPP breaks down, the study found that the children’s bodies contained five times the amount of the chemical in their mothers. In the most extreme case, a child had 23 times the level measured in the mother.
Here’s the bad news: The Toxic Substances Control Act is a badly broken federal law that allowed this to happen.
Now for the good news: Thanks to a key policy change in California fire safety standards, mainstream furniture manufacturers like Pottery Barn and Ikea now produce sofas and sectionals without flame retardant chemicals. Suddenly consumers can choose from a multitude of fire retardant-free furniture options.
Even more good news: As of January 1 of this year, furniture manufacturers must label products they want to sell in the state of California, clearly indicating whether each piece contains flame retardants. These revolutionary changes will take the guesswork – and the chemicals – out of sofa shopping.
Make sure your new couch doesn’t contain fire retardants
While the manufacturers listed below have eliminated chemical flame retardants from products manufactured after January 1, 2015, they may still sell their 2014 stock (with the exception of Room & Board). It’s important to visit the store or call customer service to confirm that the couch you purchase has the new label and was manufactured in 2015. The new label should read: “The upholstery materials in this product contain NO added flame retardant chemicals.”
Where to find couches without fire retardants
1) Room & Board
Room & Board led the pack on this issue by stopping the use chemical fire retardants in all their furniture in July of last year. According to its customer service representative, all its sofas are free of chemical flame retardants. The chain has hundreds of leather and fabric sofa options, many in the $1,000 to $3,000 range.
Hutton Sofa in Vick Velvet
Finding a non-toxic sofa doesn’t have to be expensive. All Ikea couches manufactured after January 1, 2015, are made without chemical flame retardants. But until Ikea sells out its 2014 stock, check product labels to ensure that you are buying a 2015 flame retardant chemical-free model.
3) Crate and Barrel
As of January 1, 2015, all newly manufactured Crate and Barrel couches contain no chemical flame retardants. Since many Crate and Barrel couches are made to order, you will likely get a newly manufactured (and free of chemical flame retardants) couch, but you should still double-check with customer service that yours is not a 2014 leftover.
4) West Elm and Pottery Barn
Same goes for West Elm and Pottery Barn: according to their customer service representatives, all couches made after January 1, 2015, do not contain added chemical flame retardants. Again, check with customer service – or the TB 117-2013 label – to confirm that your sofa was made in 2015.
Hamilton Leather Sofa in Tan
5) Design Within Reach
Design Within Reach sells select sofa collections made without flame retardants. According to its customer service, these include the Bantam, Camber, Flight, Goodland, Parallel, Portola, Raleigh, Reid and Soto Collections. The company uses the new TB 117-2013 label. Check for it when purchasing your couch.
Bantam Sofa in Black
Design Within Reach TB 117-2013 Label
“The upholstery materials in this product contain NO added flame retardant chemicals.”
Other manufacturers to consider include: La-Z-Boy, The Futon Shop, Dania and Scandinavian Designs.
If you have your heart set on a couch made with fire retardants, it is worth checking with the manufacturer to see if you could get a custom-made couch. Even if the answer is no, it is important for companies to hear that this is an issue that consumers care about.
For more information on where you can find fire retardant-free furniture, check out these great resources:
UPDATE: Many thanks to our commenters. Instances of "chemical-free" in this article were updated to "flame retardant chemical-free" on April 24, 2015.