Is it Time to Break up with Your Sofa?

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 1.57.28 AMIf your immediate reaction to the news that your sofa may be toxic is to stick your head in the sand or your fingers in your ears while singing la, la, la at the top of your lungs, I understand. I consider myself pretty informed on the subject and yet still have not transitioned all of my sofas. I’m almost there however.

Cushion foams are known to contain a myriad of harmful, carcinogenic chemicals, making them seriously hazardous, particularly for small children and pets. The major culprit is Chlorinated Tris. The chemical known as tris, is considered to be carcinogenic under California’s Proposition 65 and was successfully removed from children’s sleepwear in the early 1970’s. Inexplicably, tris continued to be widely used in cushions, nursing pillows and changing pads. The reason tris is in your sofa is because of the outdated California law TB 117 – which requires the regulation of flammability standards on materials used in upholstered furniture. The crazy part is that these very chemicals required by law have been linked to cancer, learning disorders, and reduced fertility. Studies have also shown that these chemicals become more flammable over time as they break down.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission considers Chlorinated Tris to be a probable human carcinogen and has stated that adding it to furniture exposes children to a daily dose significantly higher than what the agency considers acceptable. Indeed, Chemists who have conducted some of the most reputable studies to date have found that young children, who often play on the floor and put toys in their mouths, can have three times the levels of flame retardants in their blood as their parents. – Dashka Slater, New York Times Magazine, Is this the Most Dangerous Thing in Your House?, Sept.9, 2012.

Many scientists and experts have long argued that TB 117 was a pointless regulation. The foam was required to withstand ignition from a 12 second exposure to a small flame (think cigarette lighter). The problem is that cushions don’t catch fire from the inside. The upholstery would ignite first, creating a much larger and hotter flame, for a much longer period, rendering the retardants useless. In addition, there are fewer home fires today than there were in the 1970’s. Fewer smokers combined with regulations requiring smoke detectors and sprinklers have made homes safer. And, the majority of home fires start in the kitchen, not on a sofa.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to live in CA to have been affected by this law. Major furniture dealers have always sold California-compliant products in all 50 states. The California regulation has inadvertently promoted the use of these cancer-causing chemicals in furniture and other products sold in the United States in general, regardless of where products are manufactured (including imported furniture).

The good news is that a step in the right direction has been made for our personal and environmental health with Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent revision of TB 117 (the very law that he signed into being back in 1975, btw). In January, 2014, a new flame retardant standard took effect. Upholstered furniture must still pass a “smolder” test, but meeting the flame retardant criteria no longer requires the toxic chemicals that were mandated in the past. As many experts have known all along, there are more effective fire prevention methods, which include naturally fire retardant fabric materials like wool and cotton, and fire insulated lined upholstery.

And beginning in January, 2015, all furniture manufacturers will require a permanent disclosure label indicating whether flame retardants are used in a particular product.

I attended the FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) Fire Retardants seminar in March of 2014. Everyone was hopeful about the positive changes surrounding the TB 117 revisions, but doubt and worry remained in regards to the supply chain. Sure, furniture makers would no longer be mandated to include fire retardant soaked foams, but material sources would need to be voluntarily excluding those chemicals. If the manufacturing process is disrupted or proven to be cost prohibitive in any way, many foam sources will continue business as usual. It all comes down to the bottom line. A company might desire to sell a non-toxic product, but if it’s going to cost more, it might not happen, unless, of course, there is consumer demand. Consumer awareness is always key in driving business.

Consumers have generally been in the dark about which products did or did not contain chemicals. More transparency in the marketplace is good for consumers and good for business – now that the information will be available, consumers can make informed choices and businesses can respond to market signals and consumer demand

– Veena Singla, staff scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), San Francisco, CA

So this is what you need to do:


jGj recommended companies for fire retardant free and sustainable sofas:

Lee Industries – Go to imbedded link for the dealer nearest you.

Lee Industries "Apartment" sofa

Lee Industries “Apartment” sofa

Crate and Barrel – Carries Lee Industries sofas

Room and Board – Carries Lee Industries sofas

Safavieh – Carries Lee Industries sofas

Lillian August – Carries Cisco Brothers sofas

Cisco Brothers – a California based company. Go to imbedded link for the dealer nearest you.

Cisco Brothers "Beaumont" sofa

Cisco Brothers “Beaumont” sofa

About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have.

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