Organic Furniture: Going Nontoxic on a Budget

by Sarah Green LivingComments: 16

organic furnitureI’ve written several articles in the past about the importance of sourcing a nontoxic mattress to facilitate healthy sleep habits. But what about furniture? Most of us sit quite a bit and even sleep on the couch occasionally (you know, zonking out during a boring Netflix selection). Considering the purchase of organic furniture when budgeting for home furnishing is nearly as important a decision.

One person grappling with this decision recently emailed me about it to ask for input. Kyra writes:

I love your blog! I have a suggestion for one… I searched your site and don’t think you ever talked about it before– I am considering updating my living room couches, but I’ve read that most furniture is sprayed with all kinds of chemicals. Since our family room is where my family spends a ton of time (playing, napping, snuggling, snacking), I want to buy something non-toxic. Is that possible? Where and how do I find furniture that isn’t full of chemicals, fire retardants and formaldehyde?

Can you give us some tips on several brands/companies or stores and what to look for, please? What did you purchase for your family? Your article about mattresses was great so I was hoping you have helpful tips for furniture too (even though, if I remember correctly, you only recommended one particular brand). Thank you for providing us with such valuable information to keep us healthy!

This is a great question. Unfortunately, I have not discovered clear cut answers especially if you are furnishing your home on a budget. My husband and I have never placed much importance on the need for fancy decorating in our home (primarily because my husband really doesn’t care one way or another, and I am an avowed minimalist in that department). However, we have always managed to procure quality, nontoxic furniture despite spending very little.

Below is the strategy we have employed during our 25 years together. It has served to keep the furniture we buy affordable, green and as organic as possible. Perhaps it might help give you some ideas too. First, let’s go over what’s available on the market currently and how it is or isn’t an option for those seeking a chemical free living environment.

Toxins in Conventional Furniture

Before we talk solutions, let’s identify the problem with conventional furniture today. The health issues are primarily three-fold:

  • The foam in the cushions is made of petroleum-based polyurethane, a highly flammable product. To rectify this, toxic, cancer causing flame retardants are added. This synthetic foam in the cushions breaks down over time. The result is dust containing fire retardant chemicals polluting the indoor air which everyone breaths. These chemicals have become ubiquitous in the environment. They are found in wildlife tissue samples (both land and sea), breastmilk and other human body fluids (1).
  • Wood used in the typical furniture products is not solid. It is comprised of particleboard. Particleboard manufacture involves the use of formaldehyde. This chemical has been identified as a known carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program (2). The half life of formaldehyde outgassing from particleboard is about one year. Heat makes it outgas faster. However, long term studies indicate that significant outgassing continues for at least 5 years and possibly longer.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from adhesives, dyes, and/or Scotchgard, which carries the unique risk of perfluorochemicals. The EPA says that these VOCs pollute indoor air by outgassing (3, 4).

For a health conscious consumer seeking to furnish the home environment with nontoxic items, conventional furniture is quite simply a non-starter.

Organic Furniture: Is There Really Such a Thing?

Finding a nontoxic mattress is getting easier and affordable today (this is the mattress we use for all the beds in our home). However, the same cannot be said for organic furniture!

A few brands boast organic cotton upholstery, but watch out for the materials underneath! There is a lot of greenwashing going on in the furniture industry. A savvy consumer needs to be on high alert so as not to get scammed by clever marketing.

For example, the mainstream furniture manufacturers Pottery Barn and Ikea have a line of eco-friendly furniture which is clearly a step up from conventional toxic furniture of the Rooms-to-Go variety. This is a positive trend for sure!

However, I personally would not buy anything in these lines. Why? While the furniture is fire retardant free and made of sustainably produced materials and perhaps even organic cotton, it is still a toxic choice from a health perspective. For example, the recycled, FSC-certified wood used in the Pottery Barn line still has the potential to outgas formaldehyde and other chemicals since it can be made from all or a mix of post-consumer waste and VOC containing adhesives and upholstery dyes.

A more intimate example of this consumer trap is recycled toilet paper. While environmentally friendly, this is a toxic choice for the consumer.

In other words, an environmentally friendly, green product is not necessarily a nontoxic and healthy choice for your family!

Organic Furniture Selection and Affordability

Let’s say you’ve managed to find organic furniture that delivers what is claimed. There are a few brands out there that are flame retardant-free, fully recyclable and use solid wood frames, certified organic textiles, and water based adhesives. My favorite is Furnature which has been making nontoxic furniture since the early 1990’s – one of the very first to do so.

Unfortunately, an option like this is much more expensive. In addition, the color selection is typically limited to white or beige. Good luck with that if you have toddlers or young children in the house!

With conventional furniture a sketchy choice and organic furniture expensive and/or impractical, what is a health conscious consumer to do? Let’s dig deeper.

What About Leather Furniture?

Some of you may have considered leather or faux leather furniture as an option to reduce toxins.

First off, let’s scratch faux leather off the list right away. Faux leather is made from a fabric base. This base is chemically treated with wax, VOC emitting dye, or polyurethane to achieve the desired color and texture. No thanks.

Real leather undergoes a tanning process that involves many carcinogenic chemicals and solvents that would make any environmentalist cringe. The process is so toxic to both the environment and the workers, in fact, that the EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have closed most USA tanneries (5). At one time (believe it or not), Boston was a world leader in the production of leather goods, but so many pollutants were dumped into rivers and streams that the dirty water runoff kicked off an environmental backlash from consumers.

As for the interior components of a leather couch, there would be little difference from upholstered conventional furniture. Fire retardant foam and cheap, formaldehyde emitting particleboard is favored over a safer solid hardwood frame. Watch out for “engineered hardwood” too which uses plywood construction. All plywood contains formaldehyde glues which outgas over time.

Some leather furniture makers use hypo-allergenic foams and true hardwood frames, but the leather tanning process is still a thorny issue for those that are chemically sensitive.

How to Make Sure Your Furniture is Safe

If all of this information has you worried about furniture that was purchased before you started greening your lifestyle and improving your diet, take heart. There are some things you can do now to make sure your existing furniture is safe for your family.

Test Foam for Fire Retardants

Duke University’s Superfund Research Center is assisting consumers by offering foam testing services. You simply send in a small sample of the foam from your sofas, couches, or chairs. The research team will test it to see what fire retardant chemicals are in it and how badly it continues to offgas if at all.

Stop the Outgassing of Formaldehyde

Another option is to purchase Safecoat Safe Seal. This unique product is applied to particleboard to block offgassing of formadehyde from processed wood products such as plywood, particle board and pressed wood. It is especially practical to use on tables and the frames of sofas, couches and chairs that are not composed of solid wood.

How to Source Truly Nontoxic Furniture

If at this point you feel discouraged or your head is spinning, take a deep breath. You can do what my husband and I have done for 25 years to keep things simple, safe, and affordable.

Buy. Used. Furniture.

Back when we bought our house in 1993, nontoxic furniture items didn’t exist and even if they did, we couldn’t afford them. So we developed a habit of scouring estate sales, consignment and antique shops, and even garage sales for quality furniture that was made with solid wood and/or old enough (5+ years) where any outgassing issues were long gone.

Not only does this strategy ensure a safe living environment, it saves a ton of money and is kind of a fun hobby too.

Probably the best example of this approach is the solid oak dining table we have that I am typing at right now. We got it for a song and have never had to worry that we were breathing formaldehyde fumes with every meal we ate there as a family.

What strategies have you employed over the years to source nontoxic, organic furniture? Please share!

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

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