Most commercial upholstered furniture is made with polyurethane foam covered with either a synthetic or synthetic blend, chemically-treated fabric. Petroleum-
based polyurethane foam is so flammable that firefighters compare it to gasoline, according to the G. Wayne Miller and Peter B. Lord, authors of “Fatal Foam: It’s Just About Everywhere.” This exposé was written in 2003 after the polyurethane foam used for soundproofing around a Rhode Island nightclub stage caught fire, killing 100 people.1 A summary of the article follows:
For three decades, most upholstered furniture and mattresses sold in America have contained flexible polyurethane foam, the plastic material that was used as soundproofing around the Station nightclub stage. It’s found in couches, love seats, chairs, recliners, mattresses, mattress pads and mattress toppers, pillows, carpet cushioning and many other places. More than 2 billion pounds of foam enters the U.S. market every year.
Foam is comfortable and comparatively cheap—and once ignited, it can be lethal. Mattress, bedding and upholstered furniture fires killed almost 30,000 Americans from 1980 to 1998, the latest year for which National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data are available. Another 95,655 people were injured.
A German chemist invented polyurethane in 1937. The first form of this plastic was rigid. The flexible foam form came later when chemists figured out how to put tiny bubbles into it. Starting in the 1950’s, this foam began to replace horsehair, cotton, wool, feathers, latex rubber and other materials then used inside mattresses and upholstered furniture. By the 1970’s polyurethane foam was ubiquitous in America—in our houses, cars, airplanes and more. The manufacturers of this foam know about its flammability, and go to great lengths to keep it from igniting during production, storage and shipment to consumer-product manufacturers.
But consumers do not always understand the perils of foam, and usually do not even know the extent to which they should take precautions to prevent potentially lethal combustion.
When polyurethane foam is manufactured, chemicals called isocyanates are used. The most commonly used isocyanates are products of chemical compounds containing nitrogen, toluene, hydrogen and formaldehyde. According to the authors, polyurethane foam emits high levels of carbon monoxide and toxic hydrogen cyanide gas when it burns. ‘We used to say you had seven minutes to get out of a burning building,” says Deputy State Fire Marshal Richard U. James. ”Now, with the things we have put inside, it’s about three.”
TOXIC FIRE-RETARDANT CHEMICALS?
Flammability hazard is not the only problem with polyurethane foam. To combat this flammability hazard, many manufacturers have used industrial fire-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) on mattresses and furniture for years. These chemicals are the cheapest and easiest way for them to conform to the U.S. government’s flammability standards. While doing so has helped to reduce potential fire hazard, studies are only beginning to reveal the scope of possible health risks presented by long-term exposure to PBDEs and other fire-retardant chemicals.
Parents of newborns and young adolescents should be particularly concerned, since these children spend such a large percentage of their days sleeping. The National Academy of Sciences reports that young children may be uniquely sensitive to chemical and pesticide residues because of their rapid tissue growth and development. Well known pediatrician Alan Greene warns on his web site that animal studies suggest certain PBDEs can affect memory, learning, pubertal development and even sperm counts. Dr. Greene reports that PBDEs have been found in household dust, the most likely source being household furnishings such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and carpet.2 A study released in September 2003 by the Environmental Working Group found unexpectedly high levels of bromine-based flame-retardant chemicals in the breast milk of U.S.women.3 According to the report, animal studies show that fetal exposure to even minute doses of brominated fire retardants at critical points in development can cause deficits in sensory and motor skills as well as hearing. These PBDEs are bio-accumulative, building up in people’s bodies over a lifetime. The most toxic PBDEs have already been banned by the European Union,says EWG, but continue to be used in the U.S.
New upholstered furniture made with polyurethane foam is known to off-gas chemical smells. Toluene and formaldehyde, two chemicals used in the manufacture of polyurethane, are suspected carcinogens. In addition, various forms of cheaper composite wood products such as chipboard and plywood with off-gassing glues are now commonly used in furniture construction. The upholstery fabric is often treated with Scotchguard™.
In light of all this, the question is: Is it better to treat polyurethane foam-based furniture with even more fire-retardant chemicals, OR is it time to go back to the materials that were used to make furniture before polyurethane foam was invented?
Natural and organic furniture is made with renewable, solid wood frames, natural latex foam rubber, wool, and durable natural and organic woven cotton and hemp fabric with no toxic glues, finishes, or chemical treatments. (No horse hair yet.) Such products are already being handcrafted in the U.S. by expert Amish craftsmen and their families who live by pre-industrial ways that have been passed down for generations.
Some people are so sensitive to chemicals that they can’t tolerate chemicals even in small quantities. Many customers and their children who try our organic furniture and beds have reported having the following experiences:
- They feel better and enjoy being in their home much more.
- The furniture feels different and “pure”.
- Their headaches have been reduced or stopped completely.
- Allergy symptoms have reduced or disappeared completely.
- Breathing is better and easier.
- They have better sleep. Many have had the best sleep in their lives.
- Children have better behavior.
This may be the wave of the future as health-conscious people turn more to green home furnishings as a way to create a healthier home environment, to reduce chemical exposure for themselves, their children and pets, as well as practice good stewardship of earth’s resources.