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As someone who recently moved to a “new” house and is doing a bit of furnishing, I’ve been concerned about what those furnishings might do to our new home’s air quality. This excellent article from yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle shows why.
It’s something not a lot of people realize: home furnishings can be a prime source unhealthy formaldehyde, flame retardants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other chemical bugaboos that get loose and pollute indoor environments. Things to watch out for range from out-gassing formaldehyde from pressed wood products to stain and fire-retardant treatments. Here’s a quick list of ways that my wife and I are trying to keep these things down to a minimum as we try to find a place to sit around here:
- We’re doing everything we can to keep particle board and other pressed composite wood products out of our house. These materials are made with glues and other chemicals that give off fumes as they age, including formaldehyde. This process is also called off-gassing. The good news is that off-gassing tends to level off over time with newer materials generally emitting greater quantities of toxins than older materials. So our older stuff (purchased before we were wiser!) is okay now.
- We’re biting the bullet and buying solid wood furnishings and construction supplies instead or pressed wood and similar composite which are made of wood fragments or sawdust etc. pressed together with glues. Where cost is just too much of a factor, we’re going for plywood, which doesn’t outgas as much as particleboard or fiberboard.
- We’re watching the finishes and looking for low- or no-VOC paints, stains, and coatings.
- We’re trying to find furniture that hasn’t been treated for stain-resistance, and we’re refuse any optional treatments that sales people offer. The chemicals used in these treatments have been shown to escape and enter the human body where they can and do cause some unpleasantness.
- Ditto with the foams. This is a tough one because foams are everywhere and using natural replacement materials like cotton batting is usually not an option. But foams can off-gas and they’ve usually been treated with flame retardants whose behavior is much like that of stain treatment chemicals. (They can escape. We can get sick.). There are natural foams available, but they’re hard to find still, especially up here in Vermont, which lies a bit off the hot furniture trend path. And while the worst of the flame retardants have been taken out of use, we could get potentially get a couch or chair made with older foams that have remained in the supply pipeline.
- We’re airing out as much as we can for as long as we can. At least a week outside the house before we bring whatever it inside in order to let the worst of anything that’s there escape where we won’t breathe it. This is getting harder because it’s getting colder up here and we don’t have a garage (gonna be a loooong winter…), but we’re trying. Sometimes I stall the delivery guys or carpet installers. Let them sit on my order a week or two in their warehouse to let the big dose of fumes that comes when furnishings are brand spanking factory-new escape into the air there instead of at home.
- We also keep our windows open as much as possible to keep airing everything out once it’s inside the house. This is especially so in our bedrooms where we spend eight hours a day (if we’re lucky…)
- We’re asking lots of questions at furniture stores. This lets stores and dealers know we’re aware consumers and that the demand is there for healthier options. This is kind of a long-term strategy, but we’re laying the groundwork where we can.
It’d be easier to just go with whatever’s out there and hope for the best, but we’ve learned to trust only ourselves and so we do what we have to do to protect our indoor environment. We’re finding it’s not the easiest thing in the world, but, you know, its simpler than chemotherapy in 20 years so we’re up for it. Plus we have a nine-year old daughter who need us to look out for her. She has no idea what’s lurking in the furniture store. So we do our homework and the legwork, and in the end we have much better air quality at home.
One note for anyone who might be worried about stuff they bought awhile ago: Don’t be too concerned. Off-gassing of toxins tends to level off over time with newer materials generally emitting much greater quantities of toxins than older materials. It’s really only a severe problem for the first year or two of a product’s life. For example, the half life for formaldehyde off-gassing from urea-formaldehyde foam insulation is two to three years. (Experts, by the way, consider this to be one of the more extreme examples of product off-gassing longevity.) So after two to three years the foam will have emitted half of the formaldehyde fumes it will emit over its lifetime. Over the next two to three year period, the same foam will emit half of all the formaldehyde that remains (i.e. it will emit half of the half that’s left for a total of 75 percent of all lifetime emissions. This trend of releasing half of whatever is left after each preceding two to three year period will continue over each subsequent period until the foam ceases to release anything much at all.
Flame retardants and stain treatments are a little different. Here the chemicals are escaping as solids rather than as vapors. This isn’t exactly scientifically correct, but it’s basically like little teeny tiny itsy bitsy super microscopic bits of flame retardant and stain repellent are coming loose and breaking off and floating around the house until they settle in household dust. Weird, but true. So it’s important to practice “safe dusting.” This article from the September 2004 edition of the Non-Toxic Times has some tips and some info on flame retardants. Info on the chemicals found in stain treatments can be had here.