You may not realize it, but your home’s furniture is probably toxic. A wide range of different chemicals are used in the manufacture of most furniture, many of which are actually toxic. They may only be toxic while they are outgassing or when they burn; but that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.
There are two basic areas where toxins are brought into the furniture making process. The first and largest is in the upholstery. Between fire-retardant chemicals that are mandated by law and chemicals which are added to prevent pests from eating the fabric and stuffing, there are usually a number of toxic chemicals in the upholstery of most furniture. The second is the finish used for the glue, which can contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Those VOCs can also be toxic.
Some of the more common toxins used in furniture include:
- Acetaldehyde – used in polyester resins and dyes. It is this chemical, more than any other, which produces the “new furniture” smell
- Benzene – contained in detergents and dyes
- Formaldehyde – often used in the manufacture of plywood and particle board
- Hexabromocyclododecane – fire retardants
- Perfluorooctanoic acid – helps make fabrics stain-resistant and waterproof
- Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers – more flame retardants
- Trichloroethylene – used as a solvent in metal degreasing and dry cleaning
- Vinyl Acetate – used in the production of polyvinyl, paints, films, lacquers and adhesives
Some of those are a real mouthful to say, although you wouldn’t want to fill your mouth with them for any other reason. I suppose the same wisdom that is used for ingredients in food can be applied here; that is, if you can’t pronounce it, you don’t want to eat it… or in this case, you don’t want to be breathing it in.
What to do About Those Chemicals?
Since these chemicals are used in the manufacture of furniture, they will be the strongest in new furniture. So older furniture that you have or used furniture which you buy are less likely to have any issues with toxic outgassing from these chemicals. It’s new furniture that you need to be concerned about.
For that new furniture, there are a number of different things you can do, to either neutralize, absorb or eliminate vapors from these chemicals.
- Air filters – there are a number of different home air filters designed to remove dust and pollen from the air. Most will also remove airborne chemicals, such as the ones in your furniture
- Baking soda – VOCs tend to be acidic, so the use of baking soda, which is a base, is a good way of entrapping those airborne chemicals. Just sprinkle it onto your furniture and work it in with a brush. Let it sit for a couple of hours, then suck out the baking soda with a vacuum cleaner
- Charcoal filters – replace the standard air conditioning filters in your home’s HVAC system with charcoal impregnated ones. Activated charcoal absorbs a lot of chemicals, as well as trapping viruses and bacteria
- Off-gassing – allow new furniture to sit outdoors or in the garage for several days so that the VOCs can evaporate in an environment where it will not affect your family
- Plants – having plants in your home is a great way to clean the air. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, the opposite of animals. But house plants will also absorb a number of other airborne chemicals in the process
Does Non-Toxic Furniture Exist?
A number of furniture manufacturers, including some of the biggest in the world, are now producing furniture that is non-toxic. They have replaced the chemicals used in the manufacture of their furniture with others which have no toxic properties and minimal VOCs in the finishes.
Domestic manufactured furniture, as opposed to furniture that is manufactured overseas, is much more likely to be non-toxic. Low cost furniture, especially that which is made in China and other countries in the Far East, are much more likely to employ the chemicals mentioned above.
High-quality furniture, made from hardwoods, rather than plywood or particle board, are much more likely to be non-toxic. Even if furniture made of plywood uses low-VOC finishes, the manufacturing process for the plywood itself involves toxic chemicals. Likewise, furniture which uses plastics is likely to have toxic chemicals used in its manufacture.
You can recognize furniture that has been manufactured with low-VOC finishes in that it will be labeled as such. Check the informational label on the furniture to see if it lists low-VOC finishes. The same label will also tell you if the furniture’s upholstery is made with non-toxic chemicals. If it doesn’t specifically state non-toxic chemicals and low-VOC finishes on the label, you should assume that the toxic chemicals we are talking about were used in its manufacture.
Can You Make Non-Toxic Furniture?
While you have little control over the chemicals used in the manufacture of upholstery fabric and padding you use, you do have a choice over which ones you buy. While it might be difficult to find upholstery fabrics and padding which don’t use any of those chemicals, you should be able to find them online, if you check.
But even if you don’t find them online, the simple solution is to buy the materials you need, hem the fabric, and then wash the fabric and padding in the washing machine, using normal detergent. This will remove almost all of the chemicals from the fabric, making it much safer.
As for the framework of your furniture, avoid using plywood and particle board, opting for solid wood instead. That wood can be finished with low-VOC finishes, vastly reducing the toxicity level of the frame. paint and finish manufacturers have been working for years to produce lower-VOC products, in response to tightening environmental regulations.
By and large, water-based finishes, as opposed to oil, alcohol or lacquer based finishes, are going to be much lower VOC. It is the solvents used in those other finishes which provide the VOCs. Choosing to use a water-based finish almost guarantees a low-VOC product.
Low-VOC finishes have come a long way in the last few decades. Whereas previously they couldn’t provide anywhere near as good a finish quality as their higher-VOC cousins, they are much better now. While the finish may not look exactly the same, in many cases, it is close enough that the average person can’t tell the difference. If you are unsure, do a finish test on a piece of scrap, before you finish your furniture.