Is a locally made sectional that has no formaldehyde, no fire retardants and no chemical stain treatment but does have polyurethane foam OK?

Asked by Asara
Salem, OR

I am having a hard time finding furniture without spending a fortune, and this seems like a good option -- except for the foam. I have a 4-month-old and a 2.5-year-old, which is the main reason for my concern.


Kirsten Flynn

Answered by Kirsten Flynn

Palo Alto, CA

Sustainable Home

March 13, 2011

Dear Amber,

I do believe you are right to avoid fire retardant chemicals, as there are many animal studies showing that these chemicals affect endocrine systems, especially in developing creatures. These animal studies are beginning to be confirmed by human studies.

As far as I know, polyurethane foam is inert once it is used in a piece of furniture.

  • There is a class of chemicals used during the manufacture of foam called isocyanates, which are hazardous to workers who come in contact with the foam.
  • There is also an exposure risk to people installing expanded foam insulation. However, this is only during the manufacturing and installation of the foam.  

Arming you with the right questions to ask

This sectional sounds like a good option, but I think the best way I can help you is to arm you with the questions you need to ask to make sure it is okay.  

So the important details you should check on are the following:

Formaldehyde.  Make sure there is no formaldehyde in the wood products used in the frame (plywood, for example), and also no formaldehyde in the glues used on the frame (wood glue is usually used, which is not vegan, but it is nontoxic), or in the finishes used on the legs.  

Fire retardants.  Ask to make SURE the polyurethane foam is not treated with fire retardants.

  • Unfortunately, many products sold in Oregon are manufactured to meet California TB 117 -- and they meet it with fire retardant chemicals.
  • Double-check this! It might be that they are using a fire barrier cloth, which meets the fireproofing requirement without using brominated or chlorinated fire retardants.
  • This is how most mattresses meet fire code, and I consider it safe.  

Foam or latex backing. Make sure that the fabric is not back-coated for dimensional stability. Often, looser-weave fabrics have a foam or latex backing to make them stretch less when used for upholstery. This is another potential source of both formaldehyde and fire retardants.  

If you get satisfactory answers to all of these questions, I would say you have found a source for your sectional.


For more information:

Read "Help! What furniture should I get if I can't afford to buy green furniture for the whole house?" a Q&A answered by Randy Potter.

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