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Beware of Toxic Chemicals that May be Lurking in Your New Furniture

     Indoor pollution, a leading cause of SBS or Sick Building Syndrome, is often caused by the furnishings used in homes and offices.  Whether cloth or leather, wood or upholstered, contemporary or traditional, eclectic or art deco, you will likely find chemicals in one or more materials used in the composition.  There are a few manufacturers utilizing natural or 'green' materials, but at a very high cost to the consumer.

Leather sectional being off-gassed in a home with the help of a mother-in-Law's Tongue plant Sanseviria Laurentii.

      Some of the symptoms to watch for if you suspect your new furnishings are making you sick: headache, fatigue, nausea, burning eyes, nose, or throat, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, asthma attacks and even fainting. You may smell a mild odor coming from the furniture or it may be very strong and noxious. Without an expensive chemical tester, you may never know if it's coming from the upholstery fabric or leather covering, the glues in the wood or the stuffing in the cushions. 

     If you know ahead of time that you have chemical sensitivities, you may want to make a request for the company to remove packaging materials from the furniture and allow it to off-gas for a couple of weeks at their warehouse.  If that's not possible, you should consider setting it up in a vacant room or garage for at least two weeks or more until the smell dissipates.  Barring these options, you might try houseplants with a layer of activated charcoal in the soil as explained in a previous article in a study done by NASA, as well as opening windows and doors.  Ventilating with a fan directed towards the piece of furniture is helpful as well as placing bowls of bicarbonate of soda, (baking soda) and/or activated charcoal or even regular charcoal in the surrounding area.  Extra dusting and vacuuming when furniture is new helps to remove some of the chemical contaminants that settle in the dust.

     If the smell is coming from the wood, it's more than likely formaldehyde used in the gluing process of pressed woods or particle board.  Formaldehyde is one of many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and only in recent years discovered to be a carcinogen.  When composite woods are heated the glue releases gases and is vaporized into the surrounding air.  Some upholstery fabrics also contain formaldehyde.  Low amounts of off-gassing occurs even at normal room temperatures, but increases with higher temperatures.   Composite wood and suspected upholstered furnishings should not be placed near heaters, heat vents, stoves, or direct sunlight.   Producing a cloying smell, formaldehyde is a potent sensitizer.  It can be a catalyst in creating a cascading effect of sensitization to other chemicals where previously there was no sensitivity or allergy.  Although it lessens over time, it never completely outgases.

     Petroleum based stuffing in furniture contains its own concoction of chemicals.  Polyurethane foam, 'polyfoam', requires the use of Toluene (TDI) for the production of these synthetic flexible foams.  A derivative of benzene, it is considered less toxic than benzene itself, but still a potent respiratory irritant and sensitizer. Due to the high flammability of foam inserts, most still contain flame retardants made with chlorinated and brominated chemicals.  Furniture stuffed with cotton padding can contain high amounts of pesticides unless labeled 'organic'.  As much as 25% of the world's pesticides are said to be used for growing cotton.

     Some upholstery fabrics are manufactured with the use of formaldehyde, and may also contain flame retardants, as well as stain and soil resistant coatings such as Teflon.  Manufactured with fluorpolymers that break down into perfluorochemicals (PFCs), these chemicals are now found everywhere in our environment including our bodies, our homes, soil, and water and are virtually indestructible. You could lightly dust the fabric with baking soda, leave it for 15 minutes and then vacuum.  This will help absorb some of the chemical odors as well as lightly clean it.  Other solutions would be steam cleaning, which also kills dust mites, or having it professionally cleaned with a nontoxic product.  

     Leather covered furniture helps to encase the foam as well as prevent the build up of dust mites for those with allergies. It's not without its own drawbacks, however.  Today's leathers are mainly produced with a layer of pigment followed by a coating of urethane to protect it.  It also requires maintenance to keep it clean and from drying and cracking.  If you are sensitive to chemicals you should check the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for leather treatment products before purchasing them. It's very east to do.  Just do a search for the product's name followed by MSDS.

     Proper hydration is essential to leather to prevent it from drying and cracking.  It is important to only use water based products when treating leather.  The first thing you might do to your new leather is to wipe it down with a slightly damp microfiber cloth drying as you go.  Your leather will love you for it, because it loves humidity, and you will wipe off any surface contaminants from the manufacturing process.  Never use any products containing oil, wax or silicone.  These products will clog the pores of the leather preventing it from breathing, as well as destroy the protective topcoat.  One of the most highly recommended leather care products is Leather Master because it is a nontoxic, biodegradable, water based formula.  They carry everything from cleaners and hydrating formulas to protective coating  and repair kits.  Each product will specify what type of leather it is for and which application is needed.  For the average new top grain, pigmented, coated leather piece of furniture, all that is needed is the cleaner and the protector applied 2-4 times per year. Vacuuming once a month is highly recommended to prevent dust particles from building up and clogging the pores of the leather, as well as reduce chemical contaminates.  The sooner you put a layer of protectant on your new leather furniture the better.  Spills will clean up more easily and prevent staining.  And one more tip.  Just because your leather looks clean doesn't mean you don't need to clean it.  Perspiration and oils from your skin that don't show up right away are the biggest destroyers of leather.




Fabric Softeners Chemical Sensitivity and Health Hazard

     Some of you may still remember the good old days when laundry was hung out on the clothesline to dry on sunny days.  Perhaps you or your mother or grandmother dried their clothes that way.  Others may never have known what truly fresh, clean clothes smelled like when gently blown dry by a crisp, billowing breeze.  Or falling asleep on freshly laundered bedding just pulled from the clothesline.  It seems nowadays we're all about clothes dryers and synthetically scented fabric softeners and dryer sheets.

     Fabric softeners were first invented in the early 1900's by the textile industry after the introduction of synthetic detergents.  Clothes came out cleaner than with regular soap, but were left feeling harsh and stiff.  Then in the late 1960's, Conrad J. Gaiser poured liquid fabric softener onto a piece of flannel cloth to save his wife from running up and down stairs to catch the rinse cycle. He then patented the idea of a dryer sheet and sold the rights to Proctor & Gamble.

     Today, millions of dollars a year are spent by large companies trying to appease our sense of smell with the sales ploys of these fabric softeners.  That fresh outdoor smell as yet escapes them. Perhaps one day they will figure out a way to bottle up all that fresh air, but as yet we are duped by chemical imitations.

     It's not only the fresh clean smell of the outdoors we are missing out on.  For those of you afflicted with allergies and asthma, sunshine kills dust mites immediately.  Yet one more explanation for the surge of allergy and asthma related illnesses over the past several years.  Add to that the toxic chemicals in liquid fabric softeners and dryer sheets and the association can be multiplied to a much higher level.  Washing your clothes shouldn't create a health hazard.  Let's look at the facts regarding the ingredients used in some of these products.

  • Benzyl Acetate-Possible link to pancreatic cancer. (ScienceDirect, 2013)
  • Benzyl Alcohol- Upper respiratory irritant.  May cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness.
  • Ethanol- On EPA's list of hazardous waste material. Linked to central nervous system disorders.
  • Alpha-terpineol-Irritates mucous membranes.  Linked to central nervous system disorders.
  • Alpha-pinene-Neurological disorders, respiratory irritant,  skin sensitivity.
  • Ethyl Acetate-Narcotic. On EPA's list of hazardous waste material. Neurological disorders and cancer, as well as liver, kidney and brain damage.
  • Camphor- On EPA's list of hazardous waste material. May cause dizziness, confusion, twitching muscles, nausea, convulsions.
  • Chloroform-Neuotoxin and carcinogen.
  • Linalool-Plant derived extract used for scent.  Possible skin sensitivity or allergen when oxidized. Beneficial in its pure form against cancer as well as relieving stress.  Present in many essential oils.
  • Pentane-Endocrine disruptor.  Skin, eye and lung irritant.
  • Phthalates-Linked to breast cancer and reproductive disorders.
     These are just a sampling of the many chemicals found in fabric softeners.  Chemical fragrances are added to the products to disguise the unpleasant odor of the softening and antistatic chemicals.  Dryer sheets are particularly noxious, because heat releases the chemicals into the air posing a respiratory health risk.  The chemicals are impregnated into the fibers of the dryer sheets along with fatty acids to give it a wax like coating.  This coating is designed to slowly relaease into your clothes for extended periods of time and is nearly impossible to remove even after repeated washings.  The chemicals are then inhaled by the wearer as well as absorbed by the skin. Manufacturers are not required to label these chemicals on their product ingredient list.

     Fabric softening products should never be used in towels as they become less absorbent.  The wax like products in dryer sheets will also build up on lint screens.  Eventually, they will become clogged and can cause the dryer to overheat and burn out the heating element.  Dryer lint screens should periodically be washed and scrubbed using a brush with soap and water to remove any buildup.

     For a safe and cost effective solution you can add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of baking soda to the wash water cycle to soften clothes.  Another effective alternative is 1/2 to 1 cup of white vinegar added to the rinse cycle for softening and eliminating static cling.  Shake up a few drops of your favorite essential oil with the vinegar for a pleasant scent.

     You can find dryer balls made of wool online.  One brand, called 'Woolziesz' are handmade in New Zealand.  All natural and hypo-allergenic they soften laundry without any chemical additives. Lasting up to 1,000 loads they are economical too.  What I like about them is you can sprinkle a few drops of essential oil on them before tossing them in the dryer.  Below are some other options,all natural dryer sheets or natural liquid fabric softeners:                                        



"Evaluation of promotion of pancreatic carcinogenesis in rats by benzyl acetate". Longnecker DS, Roebuck BD, Curphey TJ, MacMillan DL, Food Chem Toxicol, 1990 Oct; 28(10):665-8. from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0278691590901419


Radon Testing and Mitigation for Residential Homes and Office Buildings

     One of the most inexpensive, yet invaluable air pollution safety tests you can perform at your home or office is the radon test.  Radon gas, another of the 'silent killers', is a form of radiation poisoning that causes respiratory distress and eventually lung cancer. Assessing radon risk is tricky as it is an invisible, odorless, radioactive gas that seeps from the ground to the air above.  Higher outdoor pressure forces leaks through cracked and porous cement foundations and walls. Today's modern airtight homes, combined with leaky foundations, can have much higher levels of radon than what is deemed to be safe. No level is completely safe other than zero, but that is very unrealistic.  All buildings have some level of radon however minute.

     The best time of year to test for radon is during the winter heating months when the house is sealed up.  Test kits range from simplistic envelopes or canisters to sophisticated machines.  Simple test kits involve the use of a small envelope or canister placed in an area of the home most likely to be emitting the most radon.  In a basement it would be placed in an area free from drafts, high heat or humidity, and away from exterior walls.  If you have no basement it will be placed on the main floor or in a crawlspace.  The envelope or canister is left for a few days undisturbed to collect any radon particles in the air.  It is then sealed up and returned for test results.  

     These inexpensive radon test kits can be purchased at hardware or home supply stores from five to twenty-five dollars.  Just be sure the cost includes laboratory analysis.  Some local health departments supply the kits at a reduced cost or even free. So check with them first.  For more rigid testing, you can hire a company that will come to your home or office and set up a continuous radon monitoring machine that tests the ambient air for radon gas every few minutes and prints out a continuous reading of those measurements.  It is much more accurate because radon levels are constantly fluctuating.  Normal spikes in the readings can be overlooked if they are infrequent enough over the course of several hours or days. When considering a property investment this form of testing is more desirable because it is tamperproof.   Any movement of the machine is detected and recorded, preventing the property owner from placing the machine in another location in an attempt to skew the results. Below is a sample of a printout from one of these machines.  Click on it for a closeup view.

Sample of a tamperproof continuous radon monitoring machine printout to check radon levels for air quality control.

     Test results at 4pCi/L or less are considered to be safe levels by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. So your first results come back at well under the recommended safety level of 4pCi/L.  You're done for now and can get some sleep. You may want to test again in six months or one year just to be sure.  After that every three to five years should suffice.  It is also recommended to retest after major renovations and when replacing heating systems or central air conditioning.

     Levels from 4-10pCi/L warrant further long-term testing.  If your results came back in this range, you need to run a long-term test for accuracy before considering having a mitigation system installed as they can be quite costly.

     Anything over 10pCi/L is significantly high and should be addressed as soon as possible to prevent further health issues.  An additional short-term test can be performed to verify results. During this testing period you should be contacting radon specialists to get several different estimates on mitigation systems.

     The primary method used to reduce radon is a vent pipe system.  The pipe pulls radon gas from beneath the building and vents it outside through a wall away from doors or windows or through an attic with a fan where the gas is then diluted into the air.  In crawlspaces a heavyweight plastic is used to cover the ground or concrete floor and gas is vented from beneath the plastic.  Porous concrete walls and floors of basements are sometimes sealed but this method is not always reliable due to varying results.  You can find more information on mitigation systems as well as free radon pamphlets at this EPA website. 



Replace Chemical Laden Air Fresheners with Natural Choices

     Most air freshening products on the market today are nothing more than concoctions of toxic chemicals and artificially manufactured scents aimed to tease and tempt our sense of smell.  Once again we are creating the Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) environment when it's not even necessary.  Many indoor pollutants are unavoidable, but why add to this cesspool of toxins being thrown our way everyday.  Compelled by the smells of exotic perfumes designed to overpower our common sense by deceiving our sense of smell, we purchase these synthetic scents by the millions per day.  Spray your clothes, spray your linens, spray your draperies, spray your upholstered furniture, spray your carpet and when that doesn't work, plug one into every vacant electrical outlet in your house. And if that isn't enough get a few motion activated air fresheners so every time you walk by one, you can sniff a few more noxious chemicals into your delicate airways. And we wonder why it's recommended to open windows, at least 30 minutes a day, even in the dead of winter.  It's not just to let some fresh air in.  It's to let the toxins out as well. There's a reason we need to circulate the air.  We need to stop poisoning the air we breathe.  Many artificial air freshener's sold today contain carcinogens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other toxins such as phthalates, a known hormone disrupter, that accumulate in our body. There's enough indoor pollution already in our homes and workplaces from the synthetic carpets and furnishings, wood sealants, paints, and laminates that we can't easily remove. So why add more?!?

Photo of citrus fruits in bowl with oranges, lemons, and limes used to simmer on stovetop to freshen and clean the air.

     What could be fresher than a fresh bowl of citrus fruits?  Oranges...lemons...limes.   A pot of simmering water on the stove filled with citrus peels from your oranges...lemons...limes.  Jazz it up with a little cinnamon, cloves, or allspice.  A simple, inexpensive way to freshen up your entire house  Our sense of smell is very much tied into our memories.  Sometimes the scent of something in your immediate environment will cause a memory flashback whisking you back to another place and time or bringing back memories of someone long forgotten.  So mix up some of your own concoctions or try the ones below below and bring back some of those happy memories.

     There are so many natural remedies to mask those peevish odors you're trying to cover up.  They smell better and are a whole lot better for your respiratory system. Cigarette smoke, urine and fecal odors, cooking smells, molds etc.  Of course, the best option is to eliminate the source of the odor. When that's not possible, why not try making your own air freshener.  Essential oils bind with odor particles and neutralize them. Just take a few drops of your choice of essential oils, 1 tsp. of witch hazel or vodka, and 1/2 cup of water.  Mix it up in a dark glass or PET spray bottle, shake and spray away. Just be sure to use 100% pure essential oils.  Don't spray it on your skin or on wood or plastics.  Most essential oils are not meant to be used undiluted on your skin.  Some citrus essential oils are photosensitive.  Exposure to the sun with citrus oils on your skin can cause redness, blistering and darkened pigmentation. So just to be safe, don't go in the sun for 24 hours if you get the oils on your skin. And don't mix the oils around an open flame as they are flammable. It's best to use dark glass, such as amber or cobalt blue, because the ultraviolet rays in sunlight will break down the oils. These can be found online or at health food stores such as Whole Foods. Also, these air freshening recipes will last a long time because it only takes a few sprays to do the job. Therefore, it is best to use glass or Pet plastic bottles; because essential oils will eventually leach through other plastic bottles.  PET plastic works well for diluted essential oils.  For lavender or eucalyptus use 20-25 drops.  The minty oils like peppermint or spearmint need only about 10-15 drops.  Citrus oils take a lot more, about 60 - 65 drops. You can mix the citrus oils like orange, lemon, and lime and make a wonderful citrus blend.  Try 35 drops of orange, 15 drops of lemon, and 10 drops of lime. Eucalyptus goes well with spearmint or lavender. Lavender is nice with orange. Peppermint is great on its own or mixed with just about any of the others. Just remember to use less of the mints, because they tend to overpower the others.  Start with less and add more as needed. When spraying cloth, it's best to do a test sample first and let it dry overnight to be sure it's safe on the fabric you're spraying.  Have fun experimenting with these and others.

     If you don't want to mix the air fresheners yourself, you can sprinkle a few drops of the pure essential oils on cotton balls or baking soda and place on glass or terra cotta trays around your house.  Be sure to protect the surface beneath it.  For the fresh clean scent of eucalyptus, you can fill a vase with dried eucalyptus branches.

     All of these oils work great in essential oils diffusers or misting bowls for a continuous air freshening as in Humidity Control to Prevent Illness.  You can use eucalyptus globulus or 'blue gum' when you have a cold or flu or any breathing complication.  Lavender is perfect for helping you to relax.  Minty and citrus oils are uplifting oils.  They stimulate your senses and put you in a better mood.  Jasmine and Rose Absolute are in the list below and make wonderful flowery air fresheners, but are more expensive than the others.

     And for those of you who are too lazy, or excuse me, too busy to make your own room freshener sprays, I've done some of the searching for you.  Citrus Magic and Aura Cacia air fresheners are all natural.  Aura Cacia's new lemon raspberry scent smells like raspberry lemonade.

Note:  Even some essential oils can be toxic depending upon the method of disbursement.  If you wish to check for safety click on Safety Guide to Essential Oils. Rarely, some people find themselves allergic to certain essential oils or even citrus peels.  If you find them irritating to your nose or throat you should discontinue their use.