It’s not your imagination, or a bad trip: Your couch could be trying to kill you.
A recent study found that 85 percent of the sofas researchers tested contained flame-retardant chemicals that have been identified as carcinogens and potential neurotoxins. The stats were even worse for newer couches—those made after 2005: 93 percent of those contained chemicals that were either confirmed toxic or had not yet been tested adequately enough to know if they pose a risk. The chemicals accounted for as much as 11 percent of the weight of the foam in the cushions, they found.
Manufacturers use 3.4 billion pounds of flame-retardant chemicals in couches, insulation, carpet padding, and electronics every year to, in theory, prevent them from catching fire. But studies have found that the chemicals aren’t actually effective and only make the fumes from fires more toxic.
“Petty much everyone in the country with a couch or a chair with foam have as much as a pound of a chemical like DDT or PCB in their home,” Dr. Arlene Blum, the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a coauthor of the paper, told Mother Jones. “Most people think the government protects them, and that if something’s in their couch it must be safe.” (Blum’s flame retardant work was the subject of an excellent New York Times profile in September.)
Twenty-four percent of the sofas tested positive for chlorinated Tris, a carcinogen banned from children’s clothing back in the 1970s. While no longer in baby clothes, the chemical is still relatively common in mattresses and car seats and, as this study found, your couch. The researchers also found that some of the 102 couches they tested contained PentaBDE, a chemical that the United States phased out in 2004 because, as the EPA said, the chemicals are “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment.” But as the researchers note, most people keep their couches for an average of 15 years, meaning the older couches are still in many people’s homes.
The real problem is that the chemicals don’t stay in your couch. They end up in dust and air in your house, which is particularly problematic for children that crawl around on the floor. And for you, too, if you spend a lot of time on your couch or crawling around on your floor.
The researchers also note that it’s hard to tell if your couch contains these chemicals. If it has a label noting that it meets California’s standards for flammability of upholstered furniture—that it can resist bursting into flames for 12 seconds—then it most likely does have a bunch of chemicals in it. But 60 percent of the couches they tested that didn’t have those labels still contained the chemicals.
All of this raises interesting questions about what you should do with your couch. Blum tossed her chemical-laden furniture years ago, when she found out that she had 93 parts per million of toxic chemicals in her home, which was pretty high. After four years without the toxic furniture, she’s is now down to 3 parts per million. The Green Science Policy Institute’s primer on “cancer-free couches” is a useful place to start if you want to know more.
In collaboration with Dr. Heather Stapleton at Duke University, the study tested the foam of 101 American couches bought between 1984-2010. We found that 85% of the couches contained harmful or inadequately tested flame retardant chemicals in the foam.
These chemicals are linked to numerous health and environmental problems.
Flame retardants that can be found in couches:
- TDCPP (chlorinated Tris), listed as a carcinogen by California in 2011
- National Institute of Health Analysis: “Although flame retardants can offer benefits when they are added to some products, a growing body of evidence shows that many of these chemicals are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including endocrine and thyroid disruption, impacts to the immune system, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function.“
- PentaBDE, (pentabrominated diphenyl ether) globally banned due to toxicity and environmental persistence
- National Institute of Health Analysis: “PBDEs are endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins. They are believed to cause liver tumors, neurodevelopmental and thyroid dysfunctions. Exposure to polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), close molecular analogs of PBDEs, has been associated with fatigue, reduced capacity to work, increased sleep, headache, dizziness and irritability. These symptoms often appear in combination with gastrointestinal syndromes including diminished appetite, weight loss, abdominal pain and diarrhea.“
- Firemaster 550,
- National Institute of Health Analysis: “perinatal exposure to the flame-retardant mixture is associated with endocrine disrupting effects. The researchers observed weight gain, early onset of puberty, and cardiovascular health effects at levels that are relevant to human exposure and lower than the no observable adverse effects level reported by the manufacturer.“
Read the full study, published in Environmental Science & Technology.
Other Chemicals found in couches:
Dimethyl fumarate , which was declared the Contact Allergen of the Year for 2011 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS).
- Dimethyl fumarate (DMF) is a potent allergenic sensitizer that is used for its antifungal properties. The white crystalline powder is packaged into small sachets, similar to silica gel sachets used to remove moisture. While silica gel is an inert substance that removes moisture, it is not that effective in preventing mold growth in large leather items, hence the use of DMF sachets. The skin affected by the dermatitis can be severe, red, swollen, scaly and itchy. The rash is often seen on the backs of the legs, buttocks and back of patients who have sat on a DMF-contaminated couch. Hence the condition is commonly known as “sofa dermatitis”.
- It is difficult to avoid DMF as products are not identified as containing the substance. Patients and doctors need to be aware of DMF allergy if unexplained skin reactions occur, particularly if a new item of furniture or clothing has been purchased recently that coincides with the dermatitis.
What to do if you suspect that you are being poisoned by your couch:
Send a Sample, Get a Test
- Here is unusual service run by a Duke University lab. The lab’s offer is simple. First, the lab instructs, wield a pair of scissors. Grab something made with polyurethane foam—say, a mattress or the innards of a couch cushion. Cut a small chunk from the foam. Wrap the surgical work in tinfoil, ziplock seal it and mail the crime-scene-looking evidence off to Durham, North Carolina. Wait up to 45 days, the lab said, and it’ll arrive: a report detailing toxic flame retardants embedded in the foam.
- How you can find a toxic-free couch In the market for a new couch? The Green Science Policy Institute has compiled a list of manufacturers that sell retardant-free furniture, though this list is not comprehensive. And Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) produced an easy-to-follow guide for consumers.
Of course, you also might be wondering, “What do I do with my old couch?” You don’t want to create a “hand-me-down hazard,” as this Environmental Health Perspectives article sharply observes. So where we would usually be all for reusing and recycling, the answer here is that our old, toxic furniture should go to the landfill, not to the second-hand store. Ideally, it would go to a hazardous waste facility. Unfortunately, these couches’ end-of-life questions are far from resolved, but meanwhile, we should not send these toxics downstream to others of us who simply can’t afford new furniture.
This article has been synthesized from miscellaneous articles. Studies by the National Institute of Health have been cited.