Alternatives to Toxic Couches

alternative-to-toxic-couches-lrgDid you know that 85% of foam-filled couches and chairs in America contain toxic flame retardant chemicals?

That’s right, since the 1970s, manufactures have been packing cushions with 3-4 pounds (!!) of poisonous carcinogens and neurotoxins.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about flame retardants–most of it bad. 

Flame retardants DO:

  • Cause cancer
  • Reduce IQ
  • Lead to developmental delays
  • Contribute to obesity
  • Contribute to reproductive difficulties

Flame retardants DO NOT:

  • Prevent fires
  • Reduce the severity of fires

Studies suggest that flame retardants do very little to prevent fires. Flammable foam cushioning still catches on fire, and, guess what? Smoke from chemically treated furniture is much more harmful.

Are non-toxic couches available?

I attended a symposium at UC Berkeley in 2014: The Flame Retardant Dilemma, presented by the Green Science Policy Institute. There was some hope expressed since a new law was passed in California that was considered a milestone in the long journey to remove flame retardants from our lives.

Unfortunately, there are still significant hurdles yet to overcome.

Let’s take a look at what’s happening with the California law. It doesn’t matter if you live elsewhere within the U.S. Manufacturers are not going to make two different sets of furniture – one set that can be sold in CA, and another for furniture sold in other states. This CA law affects you no matter where you live in the U.S.

The previous law – Tech Bulletin 117 – required that furniture pass an open flame test. This requirement could not be met without there being flame retardants in the foam. So all foam couch and chair cushions purchased before 2015 contained flame retardants mixed into the foam in order to pass. And its very likely that is still happening. 

The new Tech Bulletin 117-2013 law requires that furniture pass a smoldering cigarette test, rather than an open flame. This means that manufacturers are no longer required to use flame retardant foam. However, flame retardant foam has not been banned; it’s just no longer required to pass the tests.

It’s difficult for manufacturers to get flame retardant-free foam. PU foam is a petroleum product and will go up in flames like gasoline. Sofa and chair makers normally buy blocks of foam that’s been manufactured with the flame retardants already mixed in. The foam industry is not required to disclose what chemicals they are using, and manufacturers who buy the foam are not even likely to know what’s used. So when they say “no flame retardants added”, it might simply mean they didn’t add them to the foam they purchased. It does not mean that the foam they purchased is flame retardant free. You have to dig deeper to find out.

Any couch or chair can have the new Tech Bulletin 117-2013 tag on it, as long as it passes the smolder test. But this label is no guarantee – if the upholstered furniture contains polyurethane (PU) foam, then assume it contains flame retardant chemicals mixed into the foam, unless you can verify that it doesn’t. It’s also likely that the surface material has been treated or it’s wrapped in a fire retardant barrier cover – in order to pass the smolder test!

There’s a lot of money wrapped up in flame retardants. In fact, a leading flame retardant manufacturer tried to sue the state of CA for passing this new law and wants the law to be reversed.

Is there such a thing as non-toxic foam couches and chairs?

Most couch and chair cushions are made with polyurethane foam. If it contains polyurethane foam, it cannot be “toxic-free” due to the chemical makeup of the foam itself. Yes, flame retardant-free PU foam is better than flame retardant foam, but it can’t be considered non-toxic by any stretch of the imagination.

Mattresses and all Baby Products are Exempt

Yes, that’s right. The most vulnerable people – babies – are not protected at all by this new law. It’s important to know that the law excludes all mattresses and baby products (it’s only couches and chairs) so mattresses and baby products will continue to be made according to the strictest fire laws. It’s important to know that most, if not all, foam baby products contain fire retardant chemicals and/or flame barriers with toxic components. This includes crib mattresses, bassinet, cradle and porta-crib mattresses, car seats, nursing pillows, nap mats, and sleep positioners. Anything made with polyurethane foam.

What we need is an all-out ban on toxic chemicals – period. But this takes a great number of us standing up and demanding new laws that make sense.

Are we outraged enough yet?

Some good news; there are a few options

It is possible to find furniture manufacturers who don’t use toxic chemicals at all, and yes, they are expensive. Petrochemicals are cheap, but organic latex and wool are not.

Here is one that I found that makes some of their furniture from sustainable wood, organic latex foam, and wool as a natural flame retardant:


We’ve been working with White Lotus for a long time, since we sell their mattresses. White Lotus is a reputable manufacturer of futon mattresses and bedding, and they can make futon couches from natural, safe materials. You can reach them directly:

White Lotus

If you find others, please add them in the comments below.

Here is the Green Science Policy’s list of manufacturers that will make furniture “without added flame retardants”. Keep in mind the issues with PU foam itself and remember that you really have to dig in deep with the manufacturers, and especially the retailers, since they simply may not know if there are fire retardants. Maybe they are not adding the chemicals but it doesn’t mean the foam doesn’t already contain them.

Green Science Policy Consumer Sheet

Another possibility might be to swap out your current cushions with new cushions that don’t have the fire retardant chemicals mixed into the foam. Perhaps you can find a reputable foam and upholstery shop in your area. FoamOrder is a company in the SF Bay Area who will replace the foam with fire retardant-free natural latex foam. You may want to keep your current upholstery fabric or find out what the new upholstery is treated with in order to pass the smolder test. A wool barrier is the safest option.

It’s a real shame that toxic cushions are going into landfills. Furniture sent to dumps and landfills will continue to release flame retardants into the environment. The Green Science Policy Institute has created a Safer Foam Exchange Program. 10% of sales through this program goes to support efforts to develop a responsible furniture disposal solution. They may be able to connect you with a participating foam and upholstery shop in your area.

Let us know in the comments below if you know of other healthier options!

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