What Kinds Of Chemicals Are In A Couch?

Alternatives to Polyurethane Filled Couches and FurnitureYour definition of comfortable furniture is probably something that's overstuffed, at least in the seat, back, and arms. However, what's inside that furniture can be harmful to your health, no matter how much you spent on it.

The wood frames that give your furniture shape and strength may contain formaldehyde in the glue used for construction and finishes. As noted in our previous blog Is Cheap Furniture A Health Risk?, wood that contains any type of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can trigger allergic reactions long after the furniture store delivers that new couch, chair, or bookcase to your home.

What's In That Couch?


Most upholstered furniture is padded with polyurethane foam in the back and arms, while having foam cushions on the seats. Since the 1970s, there have been standards in place that have made furniture less susceptible to fire from a smoldering cigarette. Since that time the foam has been imbued with flame retardants to compound the synthetic materials in the foam itself, in an effort to improve fire resistance.

"Couch" is an easy word to say, unlike much of what is in one:


  • Polyurethane is made of toluene diisocyanate, a known indoor air pollutant and possible carcinogen. This chemical can produce severe lung problems, along with bronchitis, coughing, and skin irritations.



  • The most common flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), can cause liver, thyroid, and neurodevelopmental problems as they accumulate in our bodies. This material has been banned in Europe since 2004.



  • Yet another flame retardant used in furniture is Tris (1-3 dichloroisopropyl) phosphate, banned since the 1970s as a flame retardant for children's pajamas due to its known cancer risks. Tris is considered a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) that does not break down into safer chemicals, builds up in people and animals, and is harmful to life.


The flame retardant chemicals are sprayed on the foam, but not bound to it. This means that they off-gas from the foam and become part of dust that children and adults ingest through to hand to mouth contact. Ironically, though PBDE and Tris accumulates in human fat cells and affects fertility and endocrine functioning, it does little to stop the spread of fire from an open flame.

Safe Alternatives


If you want to avoid furniture full of unpronounceable chemicals, what can you do?

  • Consideralternate fillings. Most furniture includes polyurethane foam, as it adds good structure to the furniture. Some furniture, however, is filled with down, wool stuffing, or polyester fiberfill that usually has no flame retardant chemicals in it.



  • Soy Foam. Proponents of green furniture suggest buying furniture filled with alternatives to polyurethane foam. Soy foam includes about 20% soy foam, added to a polyurethane base. Though this product has potential for use in furniture, current formulations have a strong, rather unpleasant odor that has limited its popularity.



  • Latex Foam. Another green alternative is natural latex foam gathered from rubber trees. Latex foam resists mold, mildew, and dust mites, and can be imbued with fire resistant chemicals. Since rubber trees are scarce, the product is expensive. There is a synthetic formulation that includes a mix of synthetic and natural latex that may be a good alternative, but the created product off gases a mucous membrane and eye irritant called 4–PC.



  • Buy Newer Furniture. New laws in California require manufacturers to merely pass a smolder test, not an open flame test. This may encourage manufacturers to stop using current flame retardants. Furniture that meets the new standards will be labeled TB 117-2013. Not all manufacturers will use the new standard, so make sure to ask about whether the furniture contains flame retardants.


Co-Existing With Killer Furniture


Assuming that you are not in a position to discard your furniture in favor of more costly alternatives, what can you do to minimize risk?

  1. Clean frequently with a vacuum with a HEPA filter and a damp cloth to attract dust.

  2. Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating. Make sure to wash your kids' hands often too, as they tend to put fingers in their mouths.

  3. Discard foam pillows and cushions that are crumbling and replace the foam with different types of filling materials. At the least, make sure that the foam is inside a case and perhaps even wrapped with fiberfill to reduce the proximity of the flame retardants.

  4. Plan ahead for furniture replacement. If you know you'll be needing new living room furniture or other pieces, make sure to keep abreast on alternatives to polyurethane.


Keep Household Dust In Check


Reducing harmful furniture dust is one important function of home air filtration systems. Make sure that your furnace filters, air filters, whole house filters, and humidifier filters are clean and replaced according to the manufacturer's schedule. For a good source of filtration products, consider Air Filter Buy, a supplier of all types, brands, and sizes of filters. Just order online, or by phone at (855) FILTBUY.