Furniture’s Secret Ingredients – the Toxic Truth



Mellissa Nguyen, Program Services Manager, Environmentally Preferred Sourcing

At home or in the workplace, the furniture you live with has likely been chosen for comfort, function and aesthetic quality. The last thing that you think about when pulling up to a desk or sitting on a couch are the chemicals lurking inside them – the hidden, secret ingredients. Because 90% of our time is spent indoors, it’s worth asking: Is the furniture you, your employees and your patients live ­with – and on – created with chemical safety in mind?

There are 80,000 chemicals on the market today and most have not been adequately tested for safe use in everyday products such as furniture. Compounding the potential for harm, several common chemicals used in furniture manufacturing “off-gas” continuously, which can collect in dust that we inhale and ingest.

While consumer awareness of these potential hazards is growing, health care organizations are seeking out furniture options that do not contain these chemicals and looking to their group purchasing organizations to assist with options and accountability measures from their suppliers. To minimize the toxins with the potential to affect your patients, employees, yourself and your family, focus on eliminating these five hazardous chemicals that are commonly included in furniture’s “secret ingredients.”

Fluorinated chemicals are used for their stain-, oil-, and water-resistant properties in fabrics. Unfortunately, these chemicals persist for hundreds of years – bioaccumulating in our bodies and the environment. Unlike the other chemicals addressed here, fluorinated chemicals remain in our bodies and the environment even after they are removed from our surroundings. Highly fluorinated compounds are found in 98% of Americans and have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.

Vinyl (short for polyvinyl chloride or PVC) is used to make stain-resistant fabrics as well and lasts longer than other materials, so it fills landfills less often than non-vinyl equivalents, an environmental plus. However, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified PVC as a known human carcinogen. During the manufacturing process, the heating of PVC releases chemicals that are linked to a rare form of liver cancer called angiosarcoma, exposing factory workers. Other chemicals from PVC when released indoors, can trigger nervous system disorders and birth defects. In house and building fires, PVC releases chemicals that are not only dangerous to inhabitants but to firefighters and rescue workers as well.

According to tests by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other groups, flame retardant chemicals, which are found in furniture cushion foam, weren’t effective against fires – the cover fabric ignites anyway. It doesn’t reduce fire severity or provide increased escape time. Flame retardants are, however, linked to cancer, reduced IQ and hyperactivity. During its manufacturing and disposal, flame retardant chemicals leach out of the products into the air and water.

When the temperature or humidity goes up, so does the amount of formaldehyde released into the air. Adhesives, plastics, plywood and particle board contain formaldehyde and, according to the Healthy House Institute, it takes about six to 10 years to completely off-gas formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Additionally, prolonged exposure has been shown to cause allergies to other chemicals patients were not previously allergic to.

Antimicrobials in furniture have not been shown to reduce the spread of infection. In fact, widespread use of antimicrobials have contributed to antibiotic resistance. These chemicals give the user a false sense of security and reduced attention to cleaning and disinfection. With no significant proven benefit, antimicrobials contribute to the increased costs of products and materials. Adverse health effects of antimicrobials include but are not limited to endocrine, thyroid, and reproductive problems as well as increased allergies in children.

As a health care provider and consumer, what can you do?

1. Purchase products that are free of the five hazardous chemicals (vinyl, formaldehyde, antimicrobials, flame retardants and fluorinated chemicals).

2. Minimize your contact with dust: wash your hands before eating, open windows for good ventilation, wipe down surfaces often with water and vacuum often.

3. Look for labels and third-party certifications that have standards for furniture to ensure the manufacturer is adhering to strict criteria.

4. The Environmentally Preferred Sourcing Toolkit from Vizient is a great resource for supply chain professionals to help identify and implement sustainability practices that positively impact the health care supply chain.

Knowing the truth about your furnishings and avoiding the toxins in your purchases will help you, your patients and employees, as well as your loved ones, reduce their exposure to chemicals and improve human and environmental health.

About the author. In her role as program services manager for Vizient, Mellissa Nguyen implements strategies for the company’s industry-leading Environmentally Preferred Sourcing Program. She collaborates with Vizient members, suppliers and internal stakeholders to develop and implement data, tools and resources that can be used to make decisions that improve human and environmental health. Nguyen has a BSBA in Information Systems, an MA in International Trade Policy and an MBA in environmental sustainability. She uses her experience as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, her passion in sustainability, and nearly a decade in the GPO experience to affect sustainable change.

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