Furniture & Indoor Air Pollution Beware of Off-Gassing

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that furniture is a major contributor to indoor air pollution?

—Jonathan Carr-Brownstein, Brooklyn, NY

Many toxic materials are used throughout traditional furniture-making processes. The paints, varnishes and waxes commonly employed can release the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are known to decrease indoor air quality. One of the most common VOCs is formaldehyde, which is used in glues for particleboard. It is also added to paints as a preservative and to upholstery to give it a permanent-press quality. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, formaldehyde emissions can cause eye and throat irritation, allergic reactions, and possibly cancer.

In addition to “off-gassing” chemical pollutants, some furnishings are made of absorbent materials that make them “sinks” for other pollutants. For example, textured fabric surfaces such as draperies, upholstered furniture and carpeting can absorb and then re-release pollutants into the air. Besides absorbing the VOCs from adhesives and paints, these furnishings can collect dust mites, bacteria and fungi, especially in areas of high humidity, leading to a wide range of allergic reactions.

Luckily for those sensitive to indoor air pollution, many toxic-free alternatives to traditional furniture exist. For instance, California-based Tamalpais NatureWorks uses toxic-free finishes on its clean-lined furniture. The company uses paints, stains and waxes from BioShield, which makes its products out of citrus peel extracts, essential oils, tree resins, bee waxes and natural pigments.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts-based Furnature is one of a handful of companies using organic upholstery. The company started making furniture for chemically sensitive people more than a decade ago. And online retailer Green Culture offers a wide selection of eco-friendly beds and mattresses, nightstands, tables, dressers and armoires.

Hemp, a durable fiber that is six times stronger than cotton and very low in pesticide residues, is also occasionally employed in “green” furniture. Bean Products of Chicago uses hemp upholstery on its chairs, ottomans, couches and beds, and employs an air-blasting process to soften the otherwise tough fabric.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering regulating products like furniture with regard to indoor air pollution through a pilot program called the Environmental Technology Verification Project. The agency is creating guidelines for manufacturers to follow voluntarily with the hope that more stringent mandatory regulations can be avoided.

CONTACTS: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, www.cpsc.gov; Tamalpais NatureWorks, www.tamalpais.com; Furnature, www.furnature.com; Bean Products, www.beanproducts.com; EPA Environmental Technology Verification Project, www.epa.gov/appcdwww/iemb/etv.htm.