Our wireless is down right now at home. The internet that magically comes out of the modem still works, so it isn’t Comcast’s fault (for once!) but my cheap-o refurbished router seems to have kicked the bucket in the middle of a streaming a James Bond movie. Sad, because we didn’t get to finish the movie, but actually not so sad at all because we’re finding the lack of wireless to be quite refreshing.
In my daily perusal of The Kitchn this morning, I spotted this little piece on a family who has decided to ditch all technology pre-1986. This is pretty extreme, but I get it. I don’t like how America’s tendency is to come home from school or work and immediately flip on the TV or browse the depths of the internet (keep me away from the food blogs) for hours instead of doing something, anything.
In our living room, we have a couch, but no TV. (It’s in the bedroom, not hooked up to anything, not even Netflix.) How many American families do you think have a living room that isn’t arranged around the TV? We’re probably one of the few.
I like to sit on my couch and read or even just look out the window. It’s the first couch I have ever owned and I plan to keep it for a long time, so I took great care to find an affordable one that wasn’t going to poison me.
That’s right, toxic chemicals!
A year ago, flame retardants (FRs) were all over the news. The crusade against flame retardants, chemicals put in furniture to slow fires, was led by environmental health scientist Arlene Blum. Her research in the 1970s contributed to the ban of carcinogenic flame retardants such as the molecule brominated tris in children’s pajama fabric. The tris family of flame retardants didn’t just go away though; they continued to be used in couches, notably by Ikea until quite recently.
Since the 1970s, Blum has continued to study flame retardants. She found FRs in 85% of couches purchased in America between 1985 and 2010, mostly polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and halogenated organophosphates such as TDCPP, a relative of the tris from the 70s. Scientists have known for a long time that these chemicals cause cancer. Some PBDEs were even banned in 2005 because they mimic the thyroid hormone in the human body and bioaccumulate. These chemicals are persistent, resisting breakdown in the environment, and so are the couches that are filled with them.
The chemicals found in furniture foam are there to meet California law Technical Bulletin 117, which requires polyurethane foam to withstand igniting to an open flame. There are debates over whether these chemicals even do anything, or if they are just used out of historical precedent.
I have a distinct memory of a conversation last fall with my advisor Terry in which he mentioned that he was working on an editorial in defense of Arlene Blum. You get a lot of personal criticism when you call out a major industry chemical as harmful.
The facts on flame retardants are scary enough to make you want to throw your couch on out on the curb right now. They’re found in your body, in your furniture, in the dust in your house, and even in arctic animals. They’re persistent and bioaccumulative, finding a home in your body and staying there, unless they are transferred to a baby through breast milk. They’re endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, mutagens, and neurotoxins, and even the ones that have been banned are still around.
This information was enough to make public interest lawyer-mom-blogger Laura MacCleery (pretty much my blogging idol) do just that; her tris-filled Ikea couch ended up on the curb, and she wrote an amazing series of blog posts on the search for a new one. I read them all and the hundreds of comments (whew) and thus my search for a new couch began.
Until a few months ago when the TB 117 standard was modified, almost every couch in America was made to meet California standards. This means all foam was treated with chemicals, but some natural materials do pass the flame test without the addition of FRs. It is also theoretically possible to get a foam based couched that has not been treated with FRs (and does not comply with TB 117), but they’re harder to find.
Basically, it all comes down to four option for living room seating.
1. Couches made of all natural materials. This is the “greenest” option, and also the most expensive. I had the pleasure of being able to sit on a couch made by Cisco Brothers in a local sustainable furniture store. It was comfortable and beautiful, but the no FR version, called inside green, runs around $5000. I couldn’t get an exact price quote from the sales lady or the website, but I learned all about their sustainable, naturally flame retardant materials: natural latex rubber, goose down, organic wool, etc. Cisco Brothers also offers a soy foam based couch, the merits and faults of which will be discussed below, but it is not possible to order one without FRs, and those run around $3k anyways.
I found the same general theme with other sustainable couch dealers: all natural materials that cost an arm and a leg. If this is your thing, here are a few more sources to check out:
- Ekla Home
- 10 Best Green Upholstered Furniture Companies from Apartment Therapy
- Laura’s Ouch Couch Part II contains a list of high end green couches
2. Futon or day bed with FR free mattress instead of a real couch. I thought about this for a while, but I just don’t love futons as couches. FR free futons and mattresses are usually made of latex, cotton, or wool like in the fancy couches above, but buying just the mattress and futon frame is much cheaper. However, in order to get a flame retardant free mattress you may need a note from your doctor requesting no chemicals. I think a day bed with a lot of pillows would also look nice as a couch.
- The Futon Shop
- White Lotus Green & Organic Cotton Mattresses If I had bought a futon, I would have gone with one of these mattresses.
With any furniture source, make sure you explicitly ask about the FR content just to be safe, especially if the company is based in California.
3. Make something! Upcycle something! I like the idea of making or thrifting a wooden frame and covering it in pillows and homemade cushions.
Additionally, you could also thrift a couch older than 1975, when use of flame retardants became widespread.
4. Soy based foam that does not have flame retardants. Soy based foam is contentious because it is actually more like 20% soy and 80% petrochemicals, and most soy crops in the US are genetically modified. You can read more about the controversies of soy foam here. Even though I prefer natural to petrochemical in general, I am more concerned with my own personal safety and grad student budget in this case. Some soy is at least better than nothing, right?
Luckily, there are a few places where you can order a good old foam sofa but specifically request no flame retardants:
- Eco-Select Furniture: my choice
- RCGreen: see Laura’s couch here
- Endicott Home: by the time I heard back from them after submitting an online request for information, I had already ordered from Ken, but Ross’s selection at Endicott Home, based in Maine, is definitely worth a look.
In the end, I ordered my couch from Ken Fonville of Eco-Select Furniture in Charleston, SC. He has a great selection of designs available to view and order online, and he was great to work with. It was refreshing after doing so much research to talk to Ken himself on the phone and listen to him reassure me that yes, he sources FR free foams, sustainable textiles, real wood, and low/no VOC glues. He is also able to add FR free pull out beds to almost any couch. My lovely couch, sitting awkwardly in the middle of my apartment, is a loden green Presidio with a queen size bed and it cost just about $2000. I am pleased.
More resources on finding FR free couches and mattresses:
First, I would highly recommend reading all of Laura’s couch posts and the comments if you have the time. There you can find many little details that I have not mentioned.
The Chicago Tribune’s landmark investigative journalism series on flame retardants brought the risks of FRs to a broad audience, spurring an unusually fast policy update. This interesting paper, written by sociologists but published in Environmental Science and Technology, analyzes how the jump from science to policy was made so quickly. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use this model to reform other chemical regulations?
Finally, the update of California TB 117 has removed the open flame test, which means that more options for flame retardant free couches should be on the market soon.
A note on the links: Many of the papers that I cite require a subscription to view more than just the abstract. If you are interested in reading one you don’t have access to, please contact me. And also, nobody has paid or offered me anything to say any of this stuff, although my parents did kindly contribute to the couch fund on the condition that they could sleep on it when they visited.