The Non-Toxic Couch

My in-laws 1950s couch

A recent New York Times article evaluated the pluses and minuses of buying the high quality vs. okay-quality couch. The article focused on user’s lifestyle, design, construction, and price. A high quality couch will last decades or longer and will cost a pretty penny; it might even turn into an heirloom. An okay-quality couch can look great, but it is not usually purchased because of its solid construction or heirloom potential. It gets purchased because it fits into a budget, isn’t desired for long-term use (think small children or pets), or for use in a rented apartment.

The article doesn’t mention one huge reason for hanging on to an old “heirloom couch” — your health.

We ended up with my in-laws couch, which they purchased in the early 1960’s. Indeed, it is constructed so well that when we had it re-upholstered the upholsterer couldn’t stop talking about the coils and batting and wood. I like it because it’s lean and long and doesn’t take up much room in our smallish living room. It also feels somewhat Japanese in style, which harkens back to familiar childhood roots.

The best reason to hang on to a well-made, old couch (besides superior construction as the NY Times article concluded) is this: it isn’t a health risk. For 38 years (since 1975) furniture manufacturers have adhered to California’s rule that upholstery “not ignite when the foam inside the cushion is exposed to an open flame for 12 seconds.” Thus, most manufacturers use chemical flame-retardants on the foam of furniture sold nationally (so that it can be sold in California). Unfortunately, the rule is hurting more people (with toxic chemicals) than protecting them (from burns or fire).  A new rule that has been proposed “would allow couches and other furniture to meet state standards if the foam does not ignite from a smoldering cigarette, a test that can be passed without chemical retardants.”  Chemical companies have fought attempts to change the rule by arguing that flame-retardants have “provided an important layer of protection to Californians.” The truth is California’s rule has exposed Americans in all 50 states to unhealthy levels of flame-retardant chemicals — “foam gets compressed and releases” (as stated in the NY Times article).  Until the rule changes, we are hanging on to my in-laws 60-year-old chemical-free couch. Thank goodness it was made with superior construction.

Unfortunately, most beds are also treated with the same flame-retardants. Our family has just completed a “bed project,” which involved researching and finding beds that did not contain chemicals. I thought about how much time we were spending in bed (8 hours each night/2880 hours each year) and decided it was worth amortizing the cost of an organic cotton bed over 10-15 years.  I figured out that I am spending 30-40¢ per night for my safe sleep.  Our intermediate solution, before finding and ordering beds we liked, was to cover the beds in a wool mattress pad (which will block chemicals).  Wool also has natural anti-flammable properties and is an inhospitable setting for dust mites. In fact, our new cotton beds are wrapped in wool.

(February 1, 2014 Update: A new law has been signed by California’s Gov. Brown that allows “couches and other furniture to meet state standards if the foam does not ignite from a smoldering cigarette, a test that can be passed without chemical retardants.” A chemical company — Chemtura Corporation —  is suing the state in an attempt to block the new rules. It has a financial interest in continuing to load furniture with chemicals so toxic that even firefighters don’t want them used).  Unfortunately, furniture stores will still have foam furniture with the toxic chemicals on their showroom floors along with newer pieces without the toxic chemicals. One thing you can do is look for tags on furniture and cushions that look like this, which state that they DON’T meet California Technical Bulletin 117.  It means they haven’t been saturated in chemicals.

cushion tag








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