4 Questions You Need to Ask Before You Buy Furniture

by Keith Lobo

What are your primary considerations when buying furniture? You probably look at size, colour, style—all the things that are readily visible. But what about what’s inside that couch or table you’ve been eyeing? You’d be surprised at all you might be overlooking. In fact, it’s the stuff you can’t see that might be the most important.

Those hidden “ingredients” are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some occur naturally in our environment but are used at much higher levels in manufacturing. They are commonly used in mass-market furniture and can affect the air quality inside your home. To reduce your exposure to these chemicals, here are four questions you might want to ask during your next furniture shopping trip.

Is It Made of Particleboard?

A lot of the new furniture mass-marketed by large retailers is made of particleboard or medium-density fibreboard (MDF). These products are made of wood chips and sawdust from sawmills and lumber yards, which might make them sound eco-friendly. Unfortunately, the resin glue that holds all those tiny little pieces of wood together contains formaldehyde which can, according to a 2008 Washington Post article, cause eye, nose, and respiratory irritation even at minute levels.

The World Health Organization considers formaldehyde a carcinogen and particleboard is one of the primary sources of the chemical in indoor air.

Has It Been Treated with Fire Retardants?

Fire retardants have been in the news a lot lately. The state of California is considering a law requiring labeling of fire retardants, and New York Senator Charles Schumer is proposing a ban on the chemicals in his state. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the results of a study in August which showed that fire retardants are extremely persistent and appear in higher levels in toddlers than in their mothers. There are a variety of chemicals in fire retardants, but the EWG study noted that the commonly used TDCIPP is a carcinogen. Other fire retardants are endocrine disrupters that affect metabolism and hormones.

Is the Furniture’s Fabric “Stain-Resistant”?

The chemicals used to increase upholstery’s resistance to stains are very persistent in our environment and indoor air. In the early 2000s a particularly nasty set of chemicals called PFOS was phased out of stain resisting products but a recent study of Swedish women shows that the replacement chemical, PFBS, might be a problem. The women’s blood concentration of PFBS increased by 11% every year of the study and doubled every 6.3 years. Scientists are still studying the health effects of PFBS, but its persistence is a concern given that it was supposed to last only a number of days compared to the several years that PFOS lasts. A final note from the Swedish study? PFOS has not been banned globally and could still persist in the environment.

What Types of Stains and Paints Have Been Used?

Oil-based stains and paints contain a variety of VOCs, most of which cause eye and nasal irritation, headaches, and even dizziness at low levels. If you have furniture refinished in a shop that uses traditional methods, the paint strippers used could contain methylene chloride, which converts to carbon monoxide once it enters the body and can cause symptoms similar to that of carbon monoxide exposure.

Ask Questions, Make Informed Choices

Given the sheer number of chemicals in our environment, we are all looking for ways to minimize our exposure. Buying eco-friendly furniture is one way to reduce the number of chemicals that enter our home. By asking questions about what’s in the furniture you are considering buying, you can make an informed decision and take an important step toward fresher air in your home.

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