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My Search for a Non-Toxic Couch

  • Published on: 14 May, 2018
  • Last update: 14 May, 2018

If you’re one of the OGs who have been following me on Instagram from the beginning, you may remember that one time a few years ago when I literally made my own couch. Yes, you heard that right… and yes, it’s as bad as it sounds!

I found a raw bamboo frame on Craigslist that wasn’t finished with any chemical sealants, then I measured the seating area and ordered flame retardant free foam chunks that I covered with organic cotton fabric and made into “cushions.” It was the most uncomfortable ‘couch’ you could ever imagine! But alas, I wanted to be a “minimalist” (hint: this is not how you do it) and didn’t want to spend thousands on a sofa that was made with hormone-disrupting chemicals.

I regrettably made my own versions of other furniture too – including a “bed frame” consisting of cinder blocks and a slab of wood, along with nightstands and bookshelves featuring the same. Many of you thought I was crazy, and so did my boyfriend who was convinced he would come home every day to a gaping hole in the floor where our concrete bed had finally busted the floorboards and crushed our sweet landlord.

Thankfully that never happened… and thankfully I now own actual furniture that doesn’t look like abstract home depot art. But there’s a reason I went through this phase in the first place: it was my first time living on my own, I was on a tight budget because of school and my growing business, and I didn’t want to bring in furniture that was made with foam sprayed with flame retardants (or wood glued and sealed with off-gassing glues or finishes).

I swear my heart was in the right place. I was trying to repurpose and recycle old materials like the used bamboo frame. I was trying to buy time so I could save up and invest in high quality non-toxic furniture that would last me for years to come, and I knew that wouldn’t be cheap. At the time, there weren’t as many options as there are now in terms of companies that do things right and make safe, beautiful furniture. I thought about going the IKEA route, as they pledged to phase out the flame retardant chlorinated Tris in 2010. However, I found out it was simply replaced with another undisclosed “organo-phosphorous compound” that gets incorporated into the foam filling. (Note: If IKEA or another budget company that has phased out classic flame retardants is what’s in your budget, it’s certainly *better* than other options out there. I’m not trying to be a couch snob or scare you into thinking you need a new expensive couch. I’m simply speaking as someone who has suffered from a life-long hypersensitivity to chemicals, so I was looking for the best option possible from a company that specifically deals in non-toxic furniture — all the way down to the fabrics and wood glues).

Looking back, I wish I wasn’t so stubborn and dogmatic. Like I said, I wanted to be this “minimalist” who could DIY or repurpose everything for as little $$ as possible. I thought investing in more expensive furniture made me less of an f-the-system warrior who was rebelling against the norm. I was convinced the only way to get a “true” non-toxic couch was to do everything myself – even if I had no idea how to make a couch in the first place and ended up with some really fun back pain!

Then one day, I realized that a much better way to achieve a healthy home was to bring items into my life that were made with integrity by companies who are aware of the current chemical/environmental issues. It goes without saying that things made with integrity cost more – not only in terms of U.S. labor but also in terms of the raw materials that go into the products. It’s like buying ten $5 shirts at Forever 21 that you’ll throw away in a month vs. one high quality $50 shirt not made in a sweatshop that will last you a heck of a lot longer. When you do this, you end up buying less and getting more use out of what you bought – even if you have to spend more up front. I understood that saving up and treating myself to real furniture that didn’t have the chemicals I was trying to avoid would cost more initially, but would greatly improve my quality of life, the way I felt in my home, and my peace of mind. I no longer felt guilty, so when I moved into my new apartment this past year I bit the bullet and purchased the couch of my dreams.

Why I Wanted a ‘Non-Toxic’ Couch in the First Place: “Toxic Hot Seat”

In 2013, HBO released a documentary called “Toxic Hot Seat.” My cousin told me to watch it because it opened her eyes to the truth about the furniture industry, and it did the exact same for me. This is where I originally learned about flame retardants in couches, and it’s a big reason why I went so far as to make my own furniture before I was sure that I was making the right decision for my health as a consumer.

I highly recommend that you watch the documentary for yourself, but here’s a quick rundown:

In the 1970s, cigarettes were all the rage. People were smoking everywhere from public restaurants to their very own living rooms, and what came with that was an increased incidence of the thing you use to light those cigarettes – fire. In fact, cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths in the world, and when this was brought to the attention of tobacco companies, they did everything they could to pin the blame on the things that were catching fire instead of starting it: upholstered furniture. Even though Big Tobacco had the ability to manufacture self-extinguishing cigarettes to help prevent house fires, they refused to because “people wouldn’t want to smoke them.” They didn’t want to change a successful (yet dangerous) product and risk losing profit.

When testifying before congress, the tobacco industry spokespeople said, ‘it’s not our problem – the furniture industry should make furniture cigarette resistant.‘ There’s a whole lot of sneaky politics that goes into this, which is fully covered in the documentary, but basically they realized they needed to get a “third party” to argue their points against the furniture industry for them.

They hired a man named Peter G. Sparber as vice president of The Tobacco Institute, and he quickly helped organize a new group called the “National Association of State Fire Marshals.” As explained in Toxic Hot Seat, he was able to infiltrate this association by convincing them to advocate for “tough national standards for upholstered furniture” because it was a guaranteed way to “save more lives.” Sparber convinced the fire marshal association to “focus on the fuel rather than the ignition” – the “fuel” being the furniture that’s going up in flames. Even though it wasn’t getting to the root of the problem, it seemed like something that would make people safer. And at the end of the day, that’s all firefighters want to do – help people and keep them safe.

It seemed like a feasible solution at the time, especially because the risk of modern-day chemicals was not widely publicized back then. (Thank goodness we have the internet now, huh?!) In 1975, California instated TB 117, which mandated fire retardants in all upholstered furniture. Because California is such a huge state, it was extremely complicated for furniture manufacturers to flame retard some couches but not others, and then only sell specific models to the state. They decided to simply put flame retardants in all models, including those sold to Canada.

Arlene Blum, PhD is featured in the documentary and talks about TB 117 in detail. She studies environmental toxins that may cause cancer, and said this:

“TB 117 is a bulletin that says the foam inside your furniture won’t burn when exposed to a small flame for 12 seconds. But if you do a thought experiment and think about what happens if you drop a candle on your couch, what burns first? The fabric. And when fabric burns, do you still have a small flame? No – you have a big flame. Then the foam burns in maybe 2 or 3 seconds. And when foam burns in the presence of organohalogens [flame retardant chemicals], it gives off way more carbon monoxide and soot. And what kills people in fires? Toxic gasses.

Arlene published a paper in the 70s that studied flame retarded childrens’ pajamas that were treated with the organohalogen brominated Tris. Three months after she wrote the paper, Tris was removed from kids pajamas. However, today, another organohalogen called chlorinated Tris has been the most commonly used flame retardant in our furniture for the last few decades. She also explains that other chemicals used in our furniture such as PDBEs are now found in breastmilk, urine, and even amniotic fluid.

Arlene Blum holding nursing pillows made with flame retardants – source: berkeley.edu

“Our children have 3x the level of adults. We have about a pound in our houses. Women with higher levels take 2x as long to become pregnant.” – Arlene Blum.

Her biggest concern is the cancer risk it brings down the road. She says that these chemicals don’t cause a rash or immediate reaction, but rather they build up in our bodies and cause us to be at a much higher risk for issues later in life.

I’m giving away a lot of the documentary here, but I wanted to bring up one last point that they touched on in the film. In 1988, the U.S. Department of Commerce hired Vytenis Babrauskas, PhD to conduct a study on the efficacy of flame retardants. He’s the first person ever to get a PhD in fire protection engineering. His study aimed to compare the hazards of fire-retarded and non-fire-retarded products, namely upholstered furniture. When the reporters featured in the HBO documentary contacted the American Chemistry Council asking for proof that flame retardants work, the ACC gave them the government study done by Vytenis, stating that one of the findings was that fire-retarded furniture allowed people in residential homes 15x more time to escape if things caught on fire.

Those reporters went right to Vytenis himself and asked, “Is this true?” In the documentary, Vytenis explained that “all of the products we tested were cost-no-object, state of the art materials.” The items tested were not in fact tested under real world conditions, and had what the reporter calls, “NASA-style flame retardants” added to them. To quote the reporter directly, “They put the most potent, expensive flame retardants into these experimental items and lo and behold, it proved that flame retardants worked!”

“They were not the flame retardants you get from a retailer when you buy a new sofa,” Vytenis said. “You get maybe the slight benefit of a few seconds of ignition time from a fire safety point of view, but you do get great gobs more of noxious chemicals that are put out in the smoke – and those are toxic to human beings.”

There’s so much more to this story, but you get the point about why I wanted to invest in a couch that was as benign and “green” as possible. With all of the chemicals we’re exposed to already, I want to do everything I can to limit my exposure in my home, and thus hopefully lower my risk of illness down the road.

What I Was Looking For

My search for a couch included these requirements:

  • wood that is finished with a low or zero VOC finish (as many wood finishes can emit formaldehyde)
  • low or zero VOC wood glues
  • NO flame retardants in the foam
  • fabrics with no flame retardants or finishes

I searched far and wide and found a few different companies on the internet that hit all of these points. I suggest doing your own research in order to find what’s best for you, but when it came down to choosing, the company and model that was right for me, I went with Stem Goods. They met all my criteria but also had the bonus of gorgeous, modern design that you can fully customize to your needs – all done virtually online. That mattered for me because after dealing with the ugliest homemade furniture for 2+ years, I wanted my space to be beautiful and warm. I also knew buying a couch online without ever seeing it was a risk, so I loved that they had this interactive option where you could see EXACTLY what the couch was going to look like as you toggled through different fabrics and frames. There are a few other bonuses as well, such as the fact that they’re made in the USA right in LA! They also have a huge focus on eco-friendly materials, including domestically sourced FSC certified wood.

Why I Chose Stem Goods

I e-mailed the owner, Travis, and explained to him that after my looooong journey in the world of DIY “eco” furniture, I was ready to settle down with the (professionally-made) couch of my dreams. I also told him I wanted to write a blog post about flame retardants in couches in order to help others make an informed decision, featuring the couch that I chose. Full disclosure: he did give me a discount on my couch, but I still had to pay a pretty penny because as I said, the right materials are not cheap. I understand how much it costs them to make high quality furniture in the first place and even if he said he couldn’t swing a discount, I still would have went with Stem. (Note: they feature awesome Black Friday deals if you want to plan ahead and snag a discount of your own! And they run other sales throughout the year as well, including a 10% discount if you subscribe to their email list).

Travis told me a few other details I didn’t even think of for my requirement list, such as:

  • The cotton they use for the dust cover and internal lining is organic.
  • The wood they use is FSC certified, locally sourced and kiln dried.
  • All solid wood pieces including the legs are finished with linseed oil instead of a chemical seal!
  • Natural twine is used along with jute for the frame lining.

The foam that comes standard in the cushions is low-VOC CertiPUR-US® foam. If you are extremely sensitive or just want the cleanest couch on the market, you can also opt for their certified organic natural latex cushions made from the sap of the rubber tree (which is also bacteria, mildew, and mold resistant).

Fabric wise they have every color you can imagine, all dyed with heavy-metal free dyes. At no extra cost you can choose their Hemp Blend fabric, which is made of 45% hemp, 40% cotton and 15% recycled polyester. They offer some certified organic fabrics as well (for extra cost I believe) which you can choose as part of the customization process depending on how green you want to go.

Lastly, they offer a 100 day in-home trial to make sure you love it. I’ve had mine for over 3 months now and couldn’t be happier. It’s extremely comfortable, has absolutely no chemical smell, and is easy to spot clean.

The style I chose was the Mota Bumper Sectional. (If you choose the apartment size and go all out with the organic natural latex frame, cushions and organic cotton blend fabric, the price is about ~$5700. If you use the CertiPUR foam instead of the organic natural latex, the price can be more like ~$3700 or less. This is what I did because it’s what my budget allowed). It’s an investment, but one I’m glad I made. Non-toxic couches are not cheap, and it’s all about finding the one that’s right for you.

What Else Goes Into a Healthy Home?

For me, furniture is an important part of the picture, and it’s something that took me several years of saving and research to bring into my home. As I mentioned before with the IKEA bit, this is not meant to scare you or make you feel like you need a new couch last Tuesday. When it comes time for you to switch out your old sofa, I want to empower your search with this information about flame retardants in mind. My goal with this was to share my own journey to finding the right cough for me — a couch that exposed me to the least amount of chemicals possible, as I’ve had health issues and sensitivities my entire life.

I want to end with: a healthy home doesn’t stop at your couch or mattress. And it doesn’t have to start there, either.

There are so many other changes you can make along the way as you slowly switch over to more conscious furniture. In the years I spent preparing for this transition, I made other changes such as: getting a water filter that removes fluoride, limiting my exposure to blue light in the evenings, taking off my shoes right at the door, choosing air-purifying house plants as decor, diffusing essential oils instead of using synthetic fragrance candles, switching out my non-stick cookware to stainless steel or cast-iron, and even drinking & eating out of glass bottles and tupperware rather than plastic. I also buy safer cleaning supplies or opt to make my own (you can find so many recipes online)!

The point is that it’s all a journey, and every little step we take counts. In my next few posts, I plan to cover the steps I’ve been taking to practice proper “sleep hygiene” in my home in an effort to support my circadian rhythm. This is one of the easiest steps we can take to make our homes more conducive to our personal regeneration and healing — and yes, it may require you to break up with your phone after 7pm! 😉 Looking forward to sharing and I’ll talk to you soon.

xo, Organic Olivia

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