The Environmental Working Group's Recent Post About "Five Couches Without Flame Retardants"

In a  post dated March20, 2015, the EWG’s Enviroblog had a list of five sofas without flame-retardants that you can buy right now. It is, of course, wonderful that the State of California has revised their antique law requiring flame-retardants in furniture, but shame on the Environmental Working Group for failing to point out the many other components of sofas which are impacting our health. By not pointing out the effects that these components have on our health, people believe that a fire retardant-free sofa is safe. Yes, we have a broken federal law that purports to protect us, and yes, fire retardants are finally getting the recognition as the bad guys they deserve. But having a flame retardant-free sofa doesn’t mean you’re home safe!

Of the five sofas on the list, West Elm stands out as giving no information at all on the components – a sure sign of concern. Of the remaining four, all use polyurethane for cushioning (Crate and Barrel tries to up the ante by using “soy-based polyurethane foam”, one of Terrachoice’s “Six Sins of Greenwashing”). Room & Board uses “engineered hardwood” (i.e., glulam or other manufactured wood glued together) and Ikea uses fiberboard. And none offer an Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabric! Those components, in terms of your health, mean:


  • If you have chosen a sofa which uses “engineered hardwood” or fiberboard, then you will also be living with formaldehyde emissions. See our blog post:
  • For the sofas made with hardwood, no mention is made of the glue, varnish or paints used. The hardwood itself used by Crate and Barrel and Design Within Reach is not FSC certified (despite Crate and Barrel’s use of “USA certified sustainable hardwood” – by not mentioning the certification by name I assume it is self-certified). That means you’ve chipped away at your children’s inheritance of this Earth by supporting practices which don’t support healthy forests, which are critical to maintaining life: forests filter pollutants from the air, purify the water we drink, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. See our blog post about the importance of FSC certified wood:


  • Even high-density polyurethane foam – as well as soy foam, the new media darling – emits methyloxirane, which causes cancer and genetic mutations, and toluene, a neurotoxin. Polyurethane/soy foams oxidize over time, sending these chemicals into the air, where you can breathe them in.  Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development. It is one of the components of furniture that the University of Saskatchewan (among others) suggests be avoided in furniture.[1]  A study (the first of its kind) published last year by the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, found over 30 chemicals which are emitted from polyurethane foam, including phenol, neodecanoic acid and linalool.(2)  See our blog post about soy based foam: and about the components of polyurethane foam:


  • Produced without regard to the kinds of chemicals used in dyestuffs, processing or finishes – because none of these sofas offer Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabrics. Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals[3], and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known – among them, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), PFOA, NPA’s. There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used  –  because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. That’s why a third party certification such as Oeko-Tex or GOTS can provide assurance that the chemicals which are known (or suspected) to harm human health are not in the fabric you’re living with.  See one (of many) blog posts we have done on the subject:


  • Finally, glues, varnishes, paint all contribute to the toxic load of evaporating chemicals if conventional products have been used on the sofa.

It was sad that EWG chose to ignore the many small manufacturers who produce what is being called “organic sofas”, for lack of a better word. These manufacturers use natural latex (sometimes GOLS certified), FSC certified hardwoods and Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabrics – and have not been using flame retardants for years!  They vet all the products they use to conform to their requirements.     Instead, my heroes, the EWG, have supported business as usual.



[3] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

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