In my previous posts, I have extolled the benefits of buying used furniture. What is more eco-friendly than buying something that already exists? However, the downside of buying used upholstered furniture is that you have to worry if it contains a certain flame retardant known as PBDE.
Environmental Working Group (”EWG”) conducted the first study in the United States regarding the amount of the flame retardant, PBDE, found in American women’s breast milk. The study found that the breast milk of 20 first time mothers was on average 75 times higher in the flame retardants than the breast milk of European mothers. A similar study at the University of Texas confirmed these results.
The EWG further explains that:
“Like PCBs, their long-banned chemical relatives,brominated fire retardants are persistent in the environment and building up in people’s bodies over a lifetime. Brominated fire retardants impair attention, learning, memory, and behavior in laboratory animals at surprisingly low levels. The most sensitive time for toxic effects is during periods of rapid brain development. Fire retardants in breast milk are one measure of the chemicals that a mother passes on not only to her nursing infant, but more importantly, to the unborn fetus, which is most vulnerable to impacts from neurotoxic chemicals.”
PBDE has been banned since 2005 from furniture but it does exist in old furniture. Consequently, I reached out to EWG for comment about used furniture.
I spoke with Sonya Lauder seeking advice as to how best to protect ourselves from PBDEs in old furniture.
“People should take general precautions to avoid exposure–be extremely careful when removing foam carpet padding, and avoid any contact with crumbling foam in furniture, automobile seats or mattresses. As for used furniture–make sure the covers are intact and the foam is not misshapen.”
There are EPA approved flame retardants in new furniture but the long term effects have not been tested.
During our conversation, Sonya sensed my frustration because there just did not seem to be a good answer. If you dispose of the furniture in a landfill, then our landfills will leach or if you buy the used products, our bodies will continue to be exposed to PBDEs. Perhaps if you find out the name of the manufacturer of an upholstered piece you want to buy, you could call that manufacturer and ask if they used PBDEin their upholstery.
Another alternative if you are going to reupholster the furniture is to replace the old cushions with new cushions with the recently approved EPA flame retardants or with latex rubber cushions. (Just ask the reupholster if they can used water based glues in the re-upholstering process.) (Update: 09/4/2013: I wouldn’t recommend any product that contains flame retardants.)
Natural latex cushions can be obtained at Foam Order.com. Note, latex rubber cushions are more expensive than foam cushions. View the different prices at Foam Order to get an idea of the cost.
Two companies that market their products as environmentally safe are Furnature, who uses natural rubber, and Lee Furniture (Natural Collection) that uses foam made in part with soybeans. They both use nontoxic finishes.
Be careful. Some people are allergic to natural rubber.