Furniture is one of those areas I first started to research when purchasing a crib and mattress for my first child. As I did more research, I was shocked to learn that most furniture created over the last few decades have surprisingly toxic additives in the form of flame retardants, high VOC paints and finishes, or are constructed of plastic materials which can off-gas and be toxic to breathe. Not only are these bad to breathe in the short run, but they can be a source of long term chemical exposure for years to come as the foam in furniture breaks down, which causes the chemicals in the foam to become a part of the dust you breathe, your kids crawl around on in the floor, and that inevitably ends up in your lungs or mouth. Like everything I discuss on this site, the effects of these chemicals is not uniform or decisively toxic to every individual, but over time these exposures add up, and there is no clear current picture on how this effects the growing systems of our little ones, in addition to our own adult bodies.
Chemicals to watch out for:
- VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) in paints and finishes
- Flame Retardants in anything made with foam (chairs, sofas, couches, mattresses, baby products, car seats).
- Plastics can affect brain development and can be a hormone disruptor.
- Fabrics treated with stain, sun or water resistance often have proprietary chemicals that it’s hard to even know what you’re bringing into the house, and potential longterm impacts of exposure.
- Lead paint and other chemicals, especially in furniture from China or of unknown origin
- Formaldehyde in pressed board furniture (which is most modern furniture)
Buy non-toxic mattresses. You likely spend 6-8+ hours in your bed every day, and mattresses can be a significant source of chemical exposure if most mattresses (both the foam and the outer fabric can be treated with various flame retardants), and memory foam or other petroleum-based mattresses can expose you to other chemicals. There are a number of small and large companies that now exclusively make non-toxic wool and latex mattresses, such as Holy Lamb Organics, Bedrooms and More, Soaring Heart. Even IKEA has now started manufacturing mattresses without flame retardants.
Be mindful of foam furniture in your home and office. Recent laws have changed so that foam furniture is not required to be treated with flame retardants, but if you have second hand furniture, or furniture made in 2013 or before it’s likely treated. Newer labels (found on the underside) will have a number TB 117-2013 and say YES/NO whether it has been treated. Most new furniture from places like IKEA and West Elm is no longer treated due to consumer demand, and law changes in California. Foam can also hide in surprising places like travel pillows, children’s toys, carseats (most car seats unfortunately are still treated), and office chairs.
Allow furniture with VOCs and formaldehyde to off-gas in a ventilated area. Let’s face it, it’s hard to completely avoid VOCs in paint and products with pressed-wood that have formaldehyde. But if you’re buying new furniture or products that have that stinky smell, leave them outside in the garage, on a porch, or a well ventilated room where nobody is sleeping. You can also purchase items created with low VOC paints, and furniture made from solid wood rather than pressed board. Old family furniture, or second hand solid wood furniture can be a good alternative (but beware of lead paint if it’s older than the 1980s, or of unknown origin).
Be cautious of leather, fake leather, and stain resistant fabric. Leather can be treated with a number of toxic chemicals, and continue to off-gas or rub off on little hands, while fake leather can often have high VOC content. Sofas and chairs treated with stain and sun resistance can have unknown chemicals that little kids likely should not be licking or sleeping on.