Here is an article I recently wrote for our local Ecozone newspaper:
Anyone who has ever purchased a new piece of furniture might recall a distinct odor brought into the home or office along with the happily anticipated new addition. After a while the smell dissipates to a point where we no longer notice it, but many of us wonder what it is, and some may even experience unpleasant physical reactions in the form of dizziness, nausea or more severe symptoms. As people are becoming more aware of all things environmental, the home and office, where most of us spend more than half of our lives, are no exceptions.
The worst pollutants today are brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) which infiltrate our indoor environment as dust filtering out of our furniture (and certain other household items), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which “off-gas” harmful chemicals into the air from formaldehyde-based glues used in plywoods and wood composites as well as in many textile and wood surface finishes. PBDEs — similar to PCBs and dioxins, two of the most toxic classes of chemicals — are in use today largely as a result of the California Furniture Flammability Standard (TB-117), which indicates the use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture and baby items, resulting in widespread use of materials treated with these inexpensive chemicals.
One way to begin addressing the problem of indoor air pollution is to start asking questions. We as consumers should demand to know exactly what chemicals are in our products and any health problems associated with them. Furniture stores, designers and upholstery shops want to do their part for the environment as much as any of us, and customer interest in these important issues translates to significant “grassroots” impact as suppliers and manufacturers begin to incorporate requests for non-toxic materials into their offerings.
What are the healthy alternatives we are looking for? The purely “organic” furniture alternative may be a good choice for people with acute chemical sensitivities as well as those merely looking to create a cleaner indoor environment. This choice may include certified organic wool, an accepted flame retardant layer in upholstery cushioning and also naturally resistant to dust mites, bacteria and mold (common human allergens). Natural, non-synthetic latex foam produced without petroleum or harsh chemicals provides an alternative to urethane foam as a core cushioning element. Organic cotton, farmed without the use of pesticides or herbicides, may be used in place of standard cotton as an upholstery padding layer. There is a growing range of organic textiles as well as low-impact natural fibers such as hemp, flax, linen or bamboo. Fabric companies are adding more “green” choices to their fabric lines every year. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood products are sourced from tree farms which employ sustainable forestry management practices. Water-based glue and natural finishes such as tung oil and beeswax contain no VOCs and will not off-gas harmful air pollutants.
As our environmental knowledge expands and we begin to give voice to our concerns, our local furniture stores, upholstery shops and design services will be better able to provide a wider choice of healthy materials to suit our individual needs.