Fast Company

Sustainability: When Furniture Attacks

I was a little alarmed by an article I found in the San Francisco Chronicle this week about the myriad of toxic chemicals that are used in all types of furniture. These are the beds we sleep in each night, the tables where we eat our meals, and the couches we curl up on to watch T.V. While I'm not surprised that certain household products, like floor cleaners and paint, contain hazardous substances, it's not something I ever really considered when it comes to furniture.

The dire news: there are many known toxins that are used in the making of furniture that have adverse effects ranging from extremely unpleasant odors to liver damage. For example, formaldehyde (a chemical used in embalming) often shows up in wood furniture, and polyurethane foam can contain chemicals that have been known to lead to complications of the nervous system.

That being said, I don't know that I've ever had a reaction to a piece of furniture. Sure newly lacquered furniture might smell bad for a few days but that eventually goes away. On the other hand, several of the questionable chemicals might not produce immediate problems but can lead to cancer down the road.

Like so many potentially hazardous products that are being written about these days, there is no ingredient list of exactly what goes into furniture. There is no easy way to find out either, as furniture sellers often don't know themselves. One manufacturer mentioned in the article said he could only assume how certain pieces of the furniture he constructs are made because the parts come from overseas (from China, perhaps?).

The article names several resources of varying degrees of usefulness for finding non-toxic furniture options. Greenguard has a lot of office and school furniture, but also lists home furnishings and mattresses. The site is relatively easy to navigate and has pictures of all the items. The only "furniture" I can find on Green Seal is windows and doors, and the site just lists the companies that sell certified products. Scientific Certification Systems is even less user-friendly, with only a pdf of certified products that takes some time to sort through. In short, buying chemical-free furniture is going to take some work.

Do you have a toxic furniture horror story? Should a list of ingredients or materials be mandatory for all products sold in this country?

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2 Comments

  • Tad Simmons

    I think that sounds great! Then we'll have a list of possible "side effects" that comes with each piece of furniture. That should shift things toward environmental safety and cleanliness quickly. It would level the playing field for those who act ethically. May raise prices a bit, but what's the cost of leukemia when your son gets it?

  • Joseph Allan

    I think that sounds great! Then we'll have a list of possible "side effects" that comes with each piece of furniture. That should shift things toward environmental safety and cleanliness quickly. It would level the playing field for those who act ethically. May raise prices a bit, but what's the cost of leukemia when your son gets it?