Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

In a  post dated March20, 2015, the EWG’s Enviroblog had a list of five sofas without flame-retardants that you can buy right now. It is, of course, wonderful that the State of California has revised their antique law requiring flame-retardants in furniture, but shame on the Environmental Working Group for failing to point out the many other components of sofas which are impacting our health. By not pointing out the effects that these components have on our health, people believe that a fire retardant-free sofa is safe. Yes, we have a broken federal law that purports to protect us, and yes, fire retardants are finally getting the recognition as the bad guys they deserve. But having a flame retardant-free sofa doesn’t mean you’re home safe!

Of the five sofas on the list, West Elm stands out as giving no information at all on the components – a sure sign of concern. Of the remaining four, all use polyurethane for cushioning (Crate and Barrel tries to up the ante by using “soy-based polyurethane foam”, one of Terrachoice’s “Six Sins of Greenwashing”). Room & Board uses “engineered hardwood” (i.e., glulam or other manufactured wood glued together) and Ikea uses fiberboard. And none offer an Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabric! Those components, in terms of your health, mean:


  • If you have chosen a sofa which uses “engineered hardwood” or fiberboard, then you will also be living with formaldehyde emissions. See our blog post: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/sofa-shopping-frame-and-suspension/
  • For the sofas made with hardwood, no mention is made of the glue, varnish or paints used. The hardwood itself used by Crate and Barrel and Design Within Reach is not FSC certified (despite Crate and Barrel’s use of “USA certified sustainable hardwood” – by not mentioning the certification by name I assume it is self-certified). That means you’ve chipped away at your children’s inheritance of this Earth by supporting practices which don’t support healthy forests, which are critical to maintaining life: forests filter pollutants from the air, purify the water we drink, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. See our blog post about the importance of FSC certified wood: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/what-kind-of-wood-is-best-for-your-new-green-sofa/


  • Even high-density polyurethane foam – as well as soy foam, the new media darling – emits methyloxirane, which causes cancer and genetic mutations, and toluene, a neurotoxin. Polyurethane/soy foams oxidize over time, sending these chemicals into the air, where you can breathe them in.  Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development. It is one of the components of furniture that the University of Saskatchewan (among others) suggests be avoided in furniture.[1]  A study (the first of its kind) published last year by the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, found over 30 chemicals which are emitted from polyurethane foam, including phenol, neodecanoic acid and linalool.(2)  See our blog post about soy based foam: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/sofa-cushions-foam-soy-foam-or-latex/ and about the components of polyurethane foam: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/how-to-buy-a-quality-sofa-part-3-foam/


  • Produced without regard to the kinds of chemicals used in dyestuffs, processing or finishes – because none of these sofas offer Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabrics. Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals[3], and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known – among them, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), PFOA, NPA’s. There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used  –  because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. That’s why a third party certification such as Oeko-Tex or GOTS can provide assurance that the chemicals which are known (or suspected) to harm human health are not in the fabric you’re living with.  See one (of many) blog posts we have done on the subject: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/what-effects-do-fabric-choices-have-on-you/


  • Finally, glues, varnishes, paint all contribute to the toxic load of evaporating chemicals if conventional products have been used on the sofa.

It was sad that EWG chose to ignore the many small manufacturers who produce what is being called “organic sofas”, for lack of a better word. These manufacturers use natural latex (sometimes GOLS certified), FSC certified hardwoods and Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabrics – and have not been using flame retardants for years!  They vet all the products they use to conform to their requirements.     Instead, my heroes, the EWG, have supported business as usual.


(2) http://www.utexas.edu/news/2014/04/02/crib-mattresses-emit-chemicals/

[3] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

11 thoughts on “The Environmental Working Group’s recent post about “five couches without flame-retardants”

  1. Chris Putnam says:

    As a regular reader, I hold some articles out that are especially important and share with various vendors when I’m trying to explain what I want them to do, how to change etc. Thanks for this, LeighAnne.

  2. Hello, O Ecotextiles, and thank you for doing your homework and keeping your followers informed. As an Interior Designer who has personally recovered from Fibromyalgia, caused largely by toxin, and a professional striving to educate my clients on the consequences of living with toxicity and provide them with the most toxin-free environments, by specifying the most non-toxic products available, I value your research. Keep it coming!
    There are so very few furniture companies that are truly making the changes to detoxify their products and protect their end users. Two such manufacturers I’ve found are Furnature and Cisco Brothers Furniture. Have you found any others you could share the names of?
    What are your thoughts about the use of Natural latex rubber foam in upholstery? I keep getting mixed messages about more people being allergic to natural latex than synthetic. Is this the coming form the synthetic foam producers or verifiable testing?
    i look forward to your reply.

    1. Hi Sandra: Thanks for your kind words. We know of some other “safe” sofa manufacturers: Ekla Home (www.eklahome.com) and Ecobalanza (www.ecobalanza.com), both of whom put their all into creating a safe alternative. And they both do custom work!

      We did a post about latex awhile back, and this is what we said:
      The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”. Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

      Natural latex – The raw material for natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning. Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia, through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural latex. Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant. It is not highly flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test. It has little or no off-gassing associated with it. Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams), and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.

      Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as “latex” or even “100% natural latex”. It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR). The chemical styrene is toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain. Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization. Often however, synthetic latex can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR. Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor! Being petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

      Natural latex is breathable, biodegradeable, healthier (i.e., totally nontoxic, and mold & mildew proof) and lasts longer than polyfoam – some reports say up to 20 times longer. Many people do have a latex allergy, but it is mostly caused by skin contact – or by breathing in airborne latex particles when somebody removes latex gloves. As you know, the latex used in upholstery is covered by batting and several layers of cloth. As to whether people with a latex allergy (who have immediate reaction to the protein in latex) are more numerous than those who react to synthetic polyurethane foam many years down the road in the form of many different kinds of health problems is anybody’s guess!

  3. Reblogged this on sondasmcschatter and commented:

  4. Reblogged this on Seriously "Sensitive" to Pollution and commented:
    Excellent post from Oecotextiles regarding what more we need to know about furniture… Some important details that EWG somehow managed to leave out of their post about couches

  5. Terry S. says:

    Once again, we want to commend you for your superb research & commitment to educating the public with the truth about toxins in furniture & fabrics, and their effect on our health. So very pleased you called out EWG–we too, consider them one of our hero nonprofits, but have become concerned about their occasional failure to consider the full picture when analyzing some products & providing “ratings”.

    Re: 100% “natural” latex/rubber [i.e., no petrochem components]: we have found that such no-petrochem, 100% latex emits a strong “rubber” odor. I am very chemically-intolerant, and the natural rubber odor gives me headaches & dizziness [absolutely certain the samples I sniffed were 100% petrochem-free]. You mentioned that it has little or no “off-gassing”, but the several different samples we sniff-tested had strong odor. I have tried to do some online research to understand what could be in the tree-derived natural latex that off-gasses the odor & could cause the neurological symptoms of headaches & dizziness–no luck. I’m NOT a chemist, so I can’t figure it out on my own. ANY IDEAS OR FURTHER INVESTIGATION YOU CAN DO?

    KEEP UP YOUR SUPERB WORK in helping to protect the health of American families–U R BEST OF THE BEST!

  6. Hi Terry: I’m so sorry you’re having problems with 100% natural latex – and you’re sure that the latex is not mixed with styrene butadiene, as by law it can be called 100% natural latex even if it has a certain percentage of styrene butadiene. Did you by any chance react to GOLS certified latex? Just as some people are allergic to latex (as in gloves), you might have a reaction to some of the chemicals that evaporate from natural latex. “off-gassing” generally refers to chemicals which evaporate AND which are toxic to humans. I don’t know what kinds of chemicals evaporate from natural latex, but there might indeed be some and you may have a reaction to them, even though they are not known to harm humans. We are also not chemists, so if anybody has a possible answer for Terry please do let us know!

  7. Thank you, your posts provide very useful information and shows the importance of certification and standardization of a product

  8. susan says:

    Which companies make non toxic sofas that are affordable? I’ve been reading about what to look for in sofa’s, but it’s hard to find any information on which companies make these type of non toxic sofas. Especially affordable ones. Thanks!

    1. Hi Susan: We like Ekla Home because they do everything the way we think it should be done (and because they use our fabrics!) but you can also check on EcoBalanza. As you know, “affordable” is a relative term. We did a blog post on the true cost of a conventional sofa: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/true-cost-of-a-conventional-sofa/

  9. Chris Putnam says:

    The need for more healthy upholstered furniture at a fair price (please notice that I did not necessarily say “affordable”) is an opportunity looking for an investor!

    I would love Swiss components and precision in my next affordable watch but I would rightly expect to pay a premium price for a premium product. This is not very different except that the health of people, pets and the planet are intricately involved.

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