Question

Is a 12 year old couch safe even though it is made from mostly urethane foam?

Asked by Alexis
Santa Barbara, CA

Our friend has offered to give us their 12 year old couch. The cushions are made of urethan foam. We have a one year old, and live in a small house. Is this couch safe or should we be avoiding any and all polyurethane products? Ideally we would buy a new "safe" couch, but we are on a limited budget and safe products are very expensive. Thanks!

Answer

Kirsten Flynn

Answered by Kirsten Flynn

Palo Alto, CA

Sustainable Home

September 19, 2012

Hi Alexis,

I would recommend that you not accept this gift, unless you want to re-cushion the couch. The chemicals that I avoid in upholstered furniture are Halogenated Flame Retardants.

  • These chemicals are added to the upholstery foam to make it ignite more slowly, and can be 10% of the weight of the foam in your sofa.
  • They are scientifically associated with developmental and neurological differences (Yale report here), and they become increasingly available as the foam in the sofa breaks down over time.

Fire retardants are SVOCs

These fire retardants are not chemicals that evaporate into the air like Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's). The fire retardants become available biologically as Semi Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOC's). That means they do not evaporate into a gas, that then becomes part of the air we breathe. Rather, they break away from the foam material as tiny particles which then become part of your house dust.

  • These particles can be breathed, if they are airborne like pollen, but mostly we absorb them by touching them and then touching our mouth or nose.
  • Basically we consume them.

This explains why house pets and toddlers have higher concentrations of these chemicals in their bodies than adults. Cats lick the dust off of their fur, and toddlers are close to the floor, and put things they find on the floor in their mouths. 

More SVOC particles are released as foam ages 

Emissions of VOCs decrease as a product gets older, as the volatile chemical components evaporate out into the atmosphere. Therefore, when trying to avoid a VOC like formaldehyde, buying a used item is a good idea.

This is not true of the SVOC Flame Retardants. The foam ages over time, and more and more particles of foam and of fire retardant break out of the foam block.

  • So an older sofa actually is emitting more particles of dust containing flame retardants than a new one!
  • Additionally, the fire retardant that raised the most health concerns was PDBE, which was only phased out starting in 2005.

Therefore it is quite likely that your sofa would contain one of the most worrisome fire retardant chemicals.

So what can you do?

I sympathize that you are on a budget, and it is terribly frustrating that you have to pay more if you want to have them leave the toxic chemicals out. And you need some place to sit. 

If you have no other option, accept this sofa, and vacuum several times a week with a HEPA vacuum. Since these are particles rather than gasses, this will limit exposure.

Another option would be a futon sofa. Futons are often made of wool or cotton, and have a zipper covering which means you can look inside to see what it is made of. So if your budget dictates that you get a used sofa, look for a used futon. If it does not have foam as the padding material, this would be a good option. If you are in the market for a new futon, Matsu makes all natural cotton and wool futons in California.

Finally, these fire retardant chemicals only began being used in the early to mid 1970's. So if you can find a vintage piece that was made prior to 1970, you are good IF you know it has its original upholstery and foam.

  • If it is more recent than 1970, you could look for 100% down upholstery. A lot of very traditional upholsterers use down pillows on their Colonial style pieces, because it is authentic to the period.
  • Down is kind of a pain, because it needs to be fluffed each time you sit on it, but is is not treated with flame retardants.

I am sorry that I did not have better news for you about accepting the gift of a used sofa. I think perhaps that this free sofa is not actually a bargain.

Good luck with selecting furnishings for your home.

Kirsten
 

For more information:

Read "I'd like to buy a "green" sofa that will hold up well with our two young children and not cost me $8,000. Suggestions?" a Q&A answered by Kirsten Flynn.

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