Are Toxic Chemicals Lurking in your Furniture and Building Products?

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Photo by Phillip Stewart

Did you ever wonder if what we bring into our homes could be increasing our risk of cancer, developmental issues in our children, or  asthma?  How could a lovely PVC shower curtain or new stain resistant couch cause any problems? Or perhaps that new shade of yellow paint that smelled for a couple of days after you painted the wall?

Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way,  through my children.  When you have children that have learning disabilities, ADD, asthma, eczema, and JV Diabetes, you start to examine your own life and ask what have you done wrong.  I started to question as they grew older, if any of the products that I used in our home caused any of their problems?

Over  a decade ago, I started digging into this chemical nightmare.  According to the Center for Health, Justice, and the Environment (CHJE),

“Increasingly, children are being found to be hyperactive, slow to learn, and disruptive in school. The number of children in special education programs classified with learning disabilities increased 191% from 1977 to 1994.ii Asthma is a leading reason for school absenteeism and the number one chronic childhood illness. iii One in a hundred American children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).iv 8,000 American children are diagnosed each year with cancer,.v and dust, and in human urine, blood and breast milk.xi”[source]

The outcome?  Seven years ago, we started building a  house with nontoxic or low toxic materials.  The learning curve was huge, but it made me realize how many chemicals make up a home.   Not just the building products but also the contents in it.  Some good.  Some not so good.

According to the fact sheet, “Toxic Chemicals in Building Products,” there are three problematic categories of chemical compounds in building products:  volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals.  In addition, health and environmental concerns have been raised by the use of  PVC. Dioxins are created during the manufacturing process, when accidentally burned, or intentionally during disposal.

Where are these chemicals found and how can we stop the toxic building madness?

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is found in flooring, ceiling tiles coatings, carpet backing, pipes, conduits, siding, window treatments, furniture, wall and corner guards, wiring and cable sheathing, wall covering and upholstery.[Source]  For a laundry list of PVC laden products, see here.

PVC contains harmful phthalates and dioxins.  ( Phthalates will be discussed below.) Dioxins in PVC  build up in our bodies and could remain there for years.  In fact, the CHEJ states many chemicals used and released by PVC may be linked to breast cancer, decreased fertility, inability to carry pregnancy to term, decreased sperm levels as well as asthma in our children.

How to rid PVC from your life?  See CHEJ’s alternative guide.  (In order to download the guide, you must sign up for their e-bulletins. ) Also, for further resources, see HealthyBuilding.net’s alternative PVC guide for the health care industry, which includes many items used in a home setting.

Simply put, don’t buy #3 plastics, shy away from the vinyl window treatments and shower curtains , and  use the guides above to find alternatives to vinyl building products and home furnishings.  I know that many of these products are easier to care for and have longevity, but is your health worth it?

I will be honest.  There is PVC in my house.  I was not able to find non-PVC waste lines for my plumbing; however, my water pipes are cooper.  Nor, was I able to timely find non-PVC coated electrical wiring in my house.  If you are renovating, repairing, or building new, I have given you to the tools to correct my mistakes.

The VOC smell?

You know the new furniture or freshly painted smell? What you are smelling is volatile organic compounds. According to HealthyBuilding.net’s Toxic Chemical report noted above,

“Some VOCs have been associated with short-term acute sick building syndrome symptoms, as well as other longer-term chronic health effects, such as damage to the liver, kidney and nervous systems, and increased cancer risk.”

Examples of problematic VOCs are formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, xylene, acetaldehyde, and isocyanates, which can be found in furniture, paint, stains, and other common building products.

Formaldehyde is a potential caronogenic.  It is found in cabinets, flooring, furniture, insulation, curtains, glues, and many other products.  However, there are many formaldehyde-free products available today such as formaldehyde free insulations  (John Manville, as an example), formaldehyde free plywood (Columbia Forest products), and even formaldehyde free FSC certified bamboo flooring (Smith Fong’s Plyboo)  I bet you did not know that your bamboo flooring could have formaldehyde in it.  The resin (glue) contains the formaldehyde.

For a list of alternatives, see products that have received GreenSpec, Green Seal, and Greenguard approvals. Note, that some of Greenguards’ approved products contain PVC since the Company only tests indoor air quality.  In addition, buy carpets that are  CRI green label/green label plus approved for indoor air quality. Note, many of these carpets listed could have a petrochemical based backing.  I opted for rugs to be made out of wool with a jute back in lieu of wall to wall carpet.  The rationale behind this decision was that if one of my children developed an allergy to wool, I could simply remove  the  rug.

Could your dust bunnies harbor toxic chemicals?

Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) are released slowly from materials and are likely to transfer to human or attach to dust.  [Source] In the report, Sick of Dust: Chemicals in Common Products A Needless Health Risk in Our Home,   it was found from dust samplings that our homes contained PBDEs (flame retardants), phthalates, organotin compounds, alkylphenols, and perfluorinated organics chemicals (PFO/PFOA). For more details, see here.

These chemicals are suspected hormone disruptors, toxic to the immune system and/or potentially carcinogenic. Scary stuff.  However, the Environmental Working Group provides the following tips to remove the dust:

  • Vacuum frequently with a HEPA vacuum cleaner.  (See Green Guide’s vacuum cleaner guide.)
  • Wet mop uncarpeted floors
  • Buy wood furniture or furniture stuffed with down, cotton, polyester or cotton since it is unlikely that it contains flame retardants.  (I just want to add  ask  the manufacturer of the furniture if the furniture contains flame retardants whether on the fabric or the cushions.  Additionally, ask if the fabric has been sprayed to make it stain resistant If so, it has coated with a PFOA chemical.)
  • Wipe  dust with a microfiber or wet cotton rag to hold the dust.  (For those wishing to not use microfiber since it is made from petrochemicals, consider using SKOY cloths, made of cellulose and cotton.)
  • Equip your heating system with a high quality filter and change them frequently.  (I have an electrostatic filter.)
  • Simply take off your shoes when you walk into the house, which reduces your exposure to outside toxic chemicals such as pesticides.
  • For more EWG tips see here.  (In addition, the Green Guide has some additional tips.  See  here.)

So, you are thinking how am I going to find furniture that does not contain formaldehyde and/or flame retardants. Look for wood furniture made out of FSC-certifed woods, no or low voc stains and finishes.  Upholstered furniture without stain resistant fabric,  which is made from renewable sources  (USDA, SKAL, or perferably GOTS  certified fabric), and natural latex cushions.  See my category on fabric here for many greenier options.  I hesitate to say green since not all of them are 100% green.

A good starting point for furniture is the Sustainable Furniture Council.  However, many of the companies listed vary in their green practices, so you will have to do some investigative work.

In addition, FYI, some manufacturers tout their soy based cushions, which are part soy and mostly petroleum base and contain flame retardants (nonhalegeon based flame retardants.)  Call me a skeptic, but I don’t have a lot of faith in the chemical industry when it comes to flame retardants.  I don’t want to hear in ten years that there is another problem with flame retardants.  Remember, the manufacturing and distribution of PCBs flame retardants, the predecessor to PBDEs, has been banned due to health concerns.  Two strikes at bat as far as I am concerned.

There are many green furniture companies available that have healthier choices for consumers such  Cisco Brothers, Furnature, and Viesso.

Heavy Metals:

Such  heavy metals as arsenic, antimony,cadmium, chromium, copper, cobalt, lead, mercury and zinc, have raised concerns for human and aquatic toxicity.  During the extraction, production, and disposal of heavy metals, toxic chemicals have been released into the environment, notably our waterways.

Lead and mercury are neurotoxicants; whereas cadmium, hexavalent chromium (used in stainless steel and chrome production), and antimony trioxide (synergist in flame retardants for textiles) are carcinogens. [Source] Note, antimony is a catalyst to making PET (recycled polyester and plastic water bottles.)

Heavy metals are used as stabilizers in the production of PVC. In addition, heavy metals can be found in roofing, solder, radiation shielding, and in dyes for paints and textiles.  [Source]  See here for a more detailed list of where to find heavy metals in your home.

In: Life Support: The Environment and Human Health,  Chapter 4 author  Howard Hu, M.D., M.P.H., Sc.D. noted:

“Metals are notable for their wide environmental dispersion from such activity; their tendency to accumulate in select tissues of the human body; and their overall potential to be toxic even at relatively minor levels of exposure. Some metals, such as copper and iron, are essential to life and play irreplaceable roles in, for example, the functioning of critical enzyme systems. Other metals are xenobiotics, i.e., they have no useful role in human physiology (and most other living organisms) and, even worse, as in the case of lead and mercury, may be toxic even at trace levels of exposure. Even those metals that are essential, however, have the potential to turn harmful at very high levels of exposure, a reflection of a very basic tenet of toxicology–“the dose makes the poison.”

Bottom line. Ask when you buy if your products contain heavy metals.
Although this article is brief in the discussion of  toxicity of building product, this should give you a start of what to look for  when you bring new products into your home.   Please feel free to add to this post other chemicals that people should be aware of when they shop for household or building products.

This article is part of the Green Moms Carnival being hosted by Lori at Groovy Green Livin regarding reducing toxic products in our household.  Check out what all the other green moms have to say about this timely issue.  It will be eye opening I can assure you.


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Comments

  1. 3

    Diane MacEachern says

    Thanks for a comprehensive run down of the chemicals lurking in our furniture. Many of these same chemicals are found in conventional house paint. As consumers, we can vote with our dollars and choose the safest available products. But that’s tough when there aren’t sustainable standards that create incentives for manufacturers to reduce their use of toxins. It would really help if Congress would enact standards for manufacturing, similar to the organic foods standard, that would set a high environmental health and safety bar for manufacturing.
    .-= Diane MacEachern´s last blog ..We Don’t Wait for Our Child to Get Hit By a Car Before We Tell Her to Look Both Ways When Crossing the Street =-.

  2. 4

    Karen Hanrahan says

    My home that I bought this summer was redone. I bought it for that reason. Not to worry. All new. The person who did the work didn’t choose very greenly. Heck – He was flipping a home. UGH. I admire your tenacity in doing what you had to do to rebuild a home for your family, making the choices you did and taking on the learning curve as well. You have shared a ton of great information!
    .-= Karen Hanrahan´s last blog ..Carcinogenic =-.

  3. 6

    Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green says

    Thanks for the info! I’m sitting on a sofa that I’m sure is full of nasty things but we are slowly as we replace things getting better items.

    Funny enough my anti-spam word is Ikea lol. Their stuff does at least not have the worst of the chemicals, I like that when you go in their stores they don’t smell like other furniture stores which make me ill.
    .-= Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green´s last blog ..Cement Plants and Cancer =-.

  4. 7

    Micaela says

    Lots of great information here Anna!! The toxic dust bunnies are what scares me the most. I don’t sweep and vacuum nearly enough. I do a pretty good job of changing my furnace filter regularly though!

  5. 9

    Jason Sabo says

    If this issue is important to you, please take several minutes to join SafePhaseOut.org, a website dedicated solely to the replacement of deca-BDE with environmentally-friendly fire safety alternatives. I just supported the site and had a letter written to my legislator within the week.

  6. 11

    Amish Furniture Outlet says

    Oh this worries me! Why do we as manufacturers and government moderators continue to use products that have been proven to be harmful to us. I just do no understand why we do this to ourselves, our plant and our children. The manufacturers, must know the risks, our governments definitely know the risks. Yet……..

  7. 12

    barbra batshalom says

    Thanks for this article – I happen to be a “recovering architect” – after 12 years as a professional, I changed paths and have spent the last decade as Exec. Dir. of a nonprofit working to transform the market…but I am commenting here as a mother of 4 .
    It is absolutely criminal that using toxic chemicals is legal. It is absolutely criminal that pervasive and persistent damage can be done to natural resources and public health with many associated social and economic “externalities” and no consequences. I spend my waking hours working on these issues, but to tell you the truth, the power rests in all of our collective hands.
    WE NEED TO DEMAND healthy products. WE NEED to use our collective voice, our collective purchasing power and accelerate the change that will happen too slowly with regulation.
    In this country we have rioted and rebelled for causes – freedom, the vote, against war…for too long now, we have been too quiet as a culture, about things that compromise our health and our future.

    Everywhere we shop, everyone we speak to…we need to make this known. I’ve seen a lot of change in this industry over the past 10 years and guess what…NONE of it was because of regulation – ALL of it was due to “demand” and educated purchasers making their demands known!!

    Hopefully we can spread this kind of thinking and cause a tipping point!

    • 13

      Green Talk says

      Barbara, well said! What has been some of your brightest moments as an exec director where you have seen real change in the market? (From a mother of four too!) Anna

  8. 14

    Steel Metal Buildings says

    Oh what do we have to do! Why is it that we continue to produce and manufacture products that are proven to be bad for our health. These are sold cheaply and people, or rather large numbers of communities across the world have little choice but to take the cheap option. Try living in Asia where plastic is second to the beautiful natural teak and bamboo. What is wrong with the world of politics and business?

  9. 15

    restaurant furniture says

    It is important to be aware of the possibility of contact with chemicals that exist in our everyday environment, so thank you for this. Volatile organic compounds are abundant in most homes, and take steps to eliminate them is the smartest thing to do. Improved indoor air quality improves health!

  10. 16

    Alex Cavity says

    I agree completely. The only thing more widespread than the use of hazardous residual effect chemicals in our homes and workplaces is the vast ignorance of the practice in the general public. It is truly shocking that so many know so little about something that has the capability of affecting them so greatly. Thanks for adding to the enlightenment!

  11. 17

    flooring Chicago says

    I believe every home has dangerous chemicals “lurking” in every corner. A simple solution is to complete a safety audit on your home. This is often involves a tax refund or rebate and is money well spent.

  12. 20

    Richard James Oakwood says

    Natural products continue to maintain a lasting choice for home furnishings, yet, plastics are in our homes and businesses across the globe. To counteract the concerns that PVC has on our health there has been some work done to reduce the negative toxins in plastic products. It will be a joyous day when researchers and science have produced a plastic product that does not contain harmful toxins.

  13. 21

    Jim Rumler says

    I just recently learned that there are large amounts of formaldehyde in the resins used to bond most medium density fiber board. When you think about all the MDF that is used in construction these days the average house is probably swimming in formaldehyde!

  14. 23

    Miami Anti Aging says

    It’s so scary to think that the simple things that we surround ourselves with could be harmful and toxic. I go out of my way to eat natural and organic foods and keep harmful chemicals out whatever I ingest, but I have never thought that the furniture I have filled my home with could be dangerous… very unsettling if you ask me.

  15. 24

    trash removal nj says

    I have to say that I had no idea about how harmful a house can be and sometimes people just don’t know that. I have to say that I’m wondering why local authorities are not enforcing a new legislation that would protect us all from such exposures in our own homes. This is outrageous.

  16. 27

    Denver says

    How do you find out what is causing a health problem in you home?
    My wife cannot stay in our house in the day time if it is warm. At night we sleep with windows open and a fan in the wimdow to draw fresh air into house. I do not feel anything but she does. She cannot go into Lowes Hardware etc where the building materials are store. Only where the plants etc are located. Dr do not know any thing so where do you go to check out furniture, walls etc in house?????

    • 28

      Anna@Green Talk says

      Denver, you can have your indoor air quality checked. Just google a company in your area who does this service. You might have mold along with other VOCs that off-gas such as formaldehyde which is cabinets, carpets, etc. I hope you get to the bottom of this. Please let us know what you found out if you go the testing route. Anna

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