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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.




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Please feel free to ask any questions you might have, or share other tips and tricks for combating allergies, asthma, and toxins in our environment with other readers.