"When exposed to VOCs people may experience a wide range of symptoms that can include nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea (uncomfortable breathing), nausea, fatigue, and dizziness." - "Choosing Eco-Friendly Carpet," HGTV
As we explain in our recent Living Deep article “Fast Furniture Continues to Drown our Planet in Trash,” many dangerous toxins found in fast furniture affect human health and safety within the home. Fast furniture pieces -- from bookcases to sofas -- and other finishings -- from floor paneling to area rugs -- are often prone to either chemical or structural instability. Scientists call this chemical instability “off-gassing.” Off-gassing, as we explain in our recent article, “results from the swift and easily-triggered transition of unstable materials -- VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds -- from solid to gas.” Many link off-gassing to that “new carpet” or “new couch” smell that permeates the home after unboxing one of these pieces. Though this scent fades over time, off-gassing can occur over the entire usable life of the product. Off-gassing chemicals create negative health effects as they do so. As the article notes, “these effects range from mild skin reactions to cognitive issues and caners in extreme cases after prolonged or intensive exposure.” Between chemical instability and structural instability, fast furniture and synthetic finishings pose a number of dangers to home and human health. For more information about the structural issues, read our article “3 Ways to Dispose of Furniture Without Hurting the Planet.” In this article, follow below to learn more about three dangerous toxins found in fast furniture and how to avoid them.
Three Dangerous Toxins Found in Fast Furniture
"Of the more than 40,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 1% have been rigorously tested for human safety." - Lauren Zanolli and Mark Oliver, "Explained: the toxic threat in everyday products, from toys to plastic," The Guardian
As mentioned above, certain synthetic materials have a tendency to off-gas dangerous chemicals, While natural materials do off-gas chemicals like formic and acetic acid, they do so in limited amounts to less detrimental effects in most cases. One may avoid toxic chemicals in homeware products -- be they furnishings or finishings -- by observing a number of measures. The first step to avoiding toxic chemicals in the home is purchasing pieces made from natural, organic materials rather than cheap, synthetic furniture. Consumers might also consider buying locally and researching their state’s restrictions and prohibitions on certain chemicals. If one’s state disallows some of the more dangerous chemicals used in synthetic furniture manufacturing -- such as benzene and formaldehyde -- even inexpensive, synthetic furniture produced in the state should be safer than that produced in a state without such regulations. However, furniture purchased from certain big box stores, multinational entities and online merchandisers might not be subject to such regulations. Consumers can also search for products with certifications like California’s “lower formaldehyde gas-emission labels.” Those with access to such programs might also be able to test their existing furniture for toxic chemicals. Currently, several companies offer home tests for such emissions.
"As levels increase, some people have breathing problems or irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, or skin from formaldehyde exposure in their homes." - "Formaldehyde in Your Home: What you need to know," Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, CDC
According to the California state government Proposition 65 brief “Formaldehyde in Furniture Products,” formaldehyde is often used in “making resins such as urea-formaldehyde [and for] adhesives for some composite wood products.” One might also find the chemical in some paints and coatings. California and several other states across the country have placed restrictions on formaldehyde inclusion in furniture and other homeware products. The California government, for example, recommends against consumers purchasing furniture “that does not carry a California Air Resources Board (CARB) Phase 2 compliant label.” The CDC notes that formaldehyde also exists in “permanent press fabrics (like those used for curtains and drapes or on furniture).” It is also often in newly constructed homes. Formaldehyde emission is more likely in newly constructed homes than in older homes, notes the CDC, because “formaldehyde levels are higher in new manufactured wood products such as flooring and furniture” than in natural wood and metal products. Newer homes are also at a great risk of formaldehyde emission concentration because they are more effectively insulated than older homes, meaning that “less air is moving in and out of the home…[causing] formaldehyde to stay in the home’s air longer.”
Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure
The effects of formaldehyde may be more intense and long-lasting in children, the elderly and the immunocompromised. Those suffering from asthma and other breathing issues are likely to suffer more significantly. The CDC brief explains that “most people don’t have any health problems from small amounts of formaldehyde in their homes.” However, “as levels increase, some people have breathing problems or irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, or skin from formaldehyde exposure in their homes.” The National Cancer Institute brief “Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk” explains that while “the short-term health effects of formaldehyde exposure are well known, less is known about its potential long term health effects.” However, lab studies conducted on animals have resulted in cancer development due to formaldehyde exposure. Formaldehyde has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency since 1987.
"Levels [of PBDEs] in humans have been rising rapidly since PBDEs were introduced in the 1960s and '70s." - David S. Martin, Senior Medical Producer, "5 toxics that are everywhere: Protect yourself," CNN
In his article “5 toxics that are everywhere: Protect yourself” for CNN, David S. Martin writes of the dangers posed by PBDEs. PBDEs are chemicals frequently featured in flame retardants. Flame retardants -- intended to protect furniture from catching fire and to slow a fire if it occurs -- can emit dangerous chemicals with both acute and long-term effects on the human body. PBDEs exist in “televisions, computers and wire insulation” as well as in furniture foam and upholstery. They may also exist in mattresses, curtains, roller and Roman blinds and carpeting. According to Martin, as time passes, “products shed PBDEs, which accumulate in dust.” Unfortunately for human and environmental health, “more than 124 million pounds of PBDEs are produced annually worldwide." Even more disastrously, "they do not break down easily.” Exposure to PBDEs occurs when dust is imbibed by the body through breathing and physical contact, after which the chemical “collects in fat tissue.” The majority of companies in the United States have ceased using PBDEs in manufacturing their products. However, these chemicals still feature widely in earlier furniture pieces, carpeting and insulation -- and in some products created overseas.
Effects of PBDE Exposure
Martin writes that as PBDEs accumulate in the body, they “may damage the liver and kidneys." They may also "affect the brain and behavior, according to the EPA.” As of 2009, the EPA had designated PBDEs “chemicals of concern.” However, from 2006 onward, a number of states across the US have banned the use of PBDEs in flame retardants and other products. In fact, according to the California Air Resources Board, many localities within the United States consider PBDEs to be “toxic air contaminants.” The brief released by the California Air Resources Board -- entitled “Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers in California” -- notes that accumulation of PBDEs in the human body can cause a number of significant, damaging health issues. The brief notes that PBDE accumulation can disrupt normal functioning of the thyroid and endocrine system. It can also “cause developmental deficits...act as a reproductive toxin, and...may cause cancer.”
The NIH brief “Flame Retardants” notes that children are especially susceptible to lasting damage from exposure to PBDEs. The brief explains that “children may be particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of these chemicals." This is because a child's "brain and other organs are still developing.” Children are also more likely to come into repeated contact with such chemicals. This is because PBDEs form a dust over surfaces and children engage in frequent “hand-to-mouth behavior.” This claim is supported by evidence collected by researchers. Their studies have revealed that “children have higher concentrations of flame retardants in their bodies than adults.”
"[Benzene has] been linked to hormonal issues, that can then be linked to things like obesity, cancer, behavioral problems.” - Sara Goldenberg quoting Case Western Reserve University professor and environmental engineer in her article “Dangerous chemicals could be lurking in your furniture: What to know about off-gassing” for Cleveland 19 News
Benzene is considered a VOC -- volatile organic compound -- because it readily converts into a gaseous state at room temperature. It converts even more easily in higher temperatures. According to the Minnesota Department of Health Brief “Volatile Organic Compounds in Your Home,” benzene can be found in “paint, varnishes, caulks, adhesives, carpet, vinyl flooring, composite wood products [and in] upholstery and foam.” Furthermore, notes the American Cancer Society article “Benzene and Cancer Risk,” “benzene is among the 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States.” Benzene is colorless and odorless in most cases and cannot be recognized by sight or smell, making research into each piece of furniture and homeware element an important step in protecting one’s home health.
Effects of Benzene Exposure
In her recent article “Dangerous chemicals could be lurking in your furniture: What to know about off-gassing” for Cleveland 19 News, investigative journalist Sara Goldenberg discusses benzene with experts. In her interview, Goldenberg learns about off-gassing from environmental engineer and professor at Case Western Reserve University Kurt Rhoads. Rhoads explains that benzene has “been linked to hormonal issues, that can then be linked to things like obesity, cancer, behavioral problems.” Benzene off-gassing “can last long after your furniture loses its new shine,” writes Goldenberg, and is increased in high heat and humidity. Those in small spaces -- like poorly ventilated studio apartments or closed off rooms -- are especially exposed, notes Rhoads. Professor Rhoads explains that when you “unwrap one of these items and use it in a small area, then you’re being exposed to it all the time just as you breathe.”
According to the article by the ACS, the International Agency for Research on Cancer -- affiliated with the WHO -- the National Toxicology Program and the Environmental Protection Agency all classify benzene as a “known human carcinogen.” However, it is not understood if furniture and finishings-related benzene off-gassing within the home occurs at a high enough concentration to cause cancer. Despite this, the IARC has found benzene to be linked to “acute myeloid leukemia [and] acute lymphocytic leukemia." It has also been linked to "chronic lymphocytic leukemia...multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”
Limiting the Effects of Toxins in the Home
"Air out new furniture made from composite wood products...preferably away from the home and in a well-ventilated area. The area must have fresh air passing through it." - "Formaldehyde in Furniture Products," Proposition 65, CA.gov
To limit the effects of toxins in the home, it helps greatly to diminish their concentration in the air. Ensuring better consistent ventilation is one way to limit the concentration of VOCs in one’s household. If you are particularly concerned about the concentration of VOCs and other chemicals in your home -- and cannot locate a certain cause -- you might consider the advice of the CDC. The CDC recommends hiring “a qualified professional who has the training and equipment to test” for levels of toxic chemicals in the home. However, this is an expensive step and the tests might not be able to pinpoint what is emitting harmful levels of toxic chemicals. Less expensive measures are outlined in the Proposition 65 brief released by the California state government.
Easy Steps for Reducing the Concentration of VOCs
These include airing out newly purchased furniture made from “composite wood products” and certain plastics, or those that release a sweet, artificial smell. The brief also suggests “asking the manufacturer or store to leave the furniture unsealed in the warehouse for a few days before delivery.” Wherever possible, the brief recommends purchasing furniture and other homeware products with state emissions and chemical safety certifications. However, if this is not possible, the brief recommends “maintaining low humidity and temperatures” within the home to avoid creating an environment where a volatile organic compound might be more susceptible to converting into a gaseous -- and thus breathable -- state.
The best way to limit the effects of these toxins in the home -- according to Jonathan Engels in his article “Try These Alternatives to Toxic Plastic and Veneer Furniture” for One Green Planet, is to seek out natural materials. Engels recommends purchasing furniture -- even if it is more expensive in the long run -- made from “real, solid wood.” Engels also recommends buying “metal instead of plastic for furniture [and] glass instead of plastic” for tabletops. We at Living Deep wholeheartedly agree and -- as always -- encourage our readers to buy thoughtfully and to buy less while buying to last.