Since the 1970s, chemical flame retardants have been added to the cushions of upholstered furniture, such as couches. It’s long been understood that these chemicals are bad for humans, having been linked to birth defects and cancer.
According to new research published in Environmental International, old couches are shedding these dangerous dusts onto your floor, and in concentrations that could affect your health.
“These are real risks. When you look at some of these values, you say, that’s just a little bit of dust. A drop in the bucket,” says Kathryn Rodgers, a researcher at the breast cancer research organization Silent Spring Institute and the lead author of the paper. “But for people’s exposures when they’re in their homes many hours a day . . . these exposures add up. They’re day in, day out. And they are real.”
The good news is that by replacing the couch—or even just its internal cushioning—it’s possible to reduce dangerous dusts in your home to negligible levels.
Wait—why is my couch full of cancer?
OK, let’s rewind. Why are these terrible chemicals in our couches to begin with?
As Rodgers explains, it all began in 1975, when a new California law required upholstered furniture to be made flame-retardant in an attempt to curb house fires. While the law wasn’t national, California is a large market that also handles a majority of U.S. furniture imports, and so manufacturers building furniture for North America defaulted to this standard.
As part of the standard, the cushioning inside upholstered furniture had to withstand being held up to an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire.
“That didn’t make sense from a fire safety perspective, because fires don’t start from the middle of your couch,” says Rodgers. But to pass this test, a suite of chemicals dubbed FRs (or flame retardants) were mixed into the foams in high levels. They can be responsible for 5% of the foam’s overall weight.
Over the decades since, furniture has become better made. Its textiles feature a tighter weave, which blocks oxygen flow to potential sparks and delays the potential spread of a fire. “It was a design change, not a chemical change, that’s led to increased fire safety for furniture,” says Rodgers.
So in 2013, California, a state that’s now more aggressive in limiting and disclosing dangerous chemicals in consumer products, revised its standard. The state said FRs were no longer mandated in furniture, but they weren’t banned outright, either.
Then in late 2020, the federal government decided to turn California’s FR-optional stance into the first national safety standard on furniture. That means across America, FRs can still be added to furniture, but it’s become increasingly likely that you can buy items without FRs altogether. (More on that below.)
What did the study discover?
The reason that we’re talking about any of this at all is due to the recent study in Environmental International, which proved that old furniture will shed FR-laden dust into your house, but that replacing said furniture can measurably help.
To conduct the study, researchers reached out to households in Northern California, looking for participants who were planning on, or open to, replacing an old couch. They found 42 households willing to participate.
Researchers visited while the old couch was still sitting there, and they collected dust samples from around the home. These samples tended to find dangerous concentrations of many FR chemicals, which leech out of the foam when you sit on the couch. Then the researchers visited again after the couch was replaced or the cushions inside the couch were replaced.
Six months after either replacement option, researchers collected and scanned household dust again. FR concentrations plunged; spaces were safer. The same held true in follow-ups a year and 18 months later. It proved that replacing an old couch, or the cushions inside it, could effectively clear these FRs from your living space.
So what should I do with my couch?
If you’re anything like me, then you bought a couch in the past few years, and you still have zero clues as to whether it has FRs inside or not. And even if you plan to replace it, what’s the guarantee that your new couch won’t have FRs too? After all, they still aren’t banned in the U.S.
The good news is that, while Rodgers hasn’t sampled every couch on the market, from what she’s seen, she believes that manufacturers are using FRs in far lower concentrations than before 2014, as a general rule of thumb. If your couch is older than 2014, it likely has FRs. If your couch is newer, or you think it might be newer, she advises to check for tags.
One tag can read “TB117-2013″—which signifies it was made after California’s new legislation, and the couch is more likely to be clear of FRs or to use them in limited amounts.
The second tag is more definitive, but it’s only mandated for the state of California, so it may or may not be on your furniture. It reads something like “this material contains flame retardants” and can have a “yes” or “no” box checked.
If you do have a couch (or any upholstered chair) with FRs, Rodgers suggests you replace it or the cushioning inside. She also points out that when people replace their couch, they tend to vacuum around and under it with far more zealousness. A vacuum with a HEPA filter inside can capture these dangerous dust particles.
But as a larger trend, these vague laws point out something that’s become increasingly clear. We need more federal oversight about not just environmental concerns in nature, but the chemicals that we’re bringing into our own homes. For instance, simply using a gas oven can pollute indoor air quality to levels exceeding the dirtiest cities on earth. Our homes are our sanctuaries. They need to be safe.