Mar 05, 2018
by Angela Cummings and Sophia Ruan Gushée
Did you recently buy new furniture, such as a bed frame, couch, desk or shelving unit? Do you feel tired, light headed, foggy, or crabby but don’t know why? Your new furniture may contribute to these symptoms.
Furniture is often made from many different types of materials that are made from chemicals. These chemicals can escape into the air and dust of your home. Many of these same chemicals are listed on the EPA’s Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) database. And they can contribute to headaches, irritation, fogginess, and other symptoms.
There is a family of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) and another family of chemicals called semi-volatile organic compounds (or SVOCs). Both VOCs and SVOCs are often found in furniture frames, cushions, and finishes. These chemicals are also found on the HAPs list. Let’s look at these materials a little closer.
Frames & Tops. Parts of furniture—like frames of sofas and chairs, or tops of tables, dressers, or consoles—can be made from composite wood (often also called “engineered wood” or “pressed wood”), metal, glass, solid soft wood (such as pine), and solid hardwood (such as maple or oak).
Both composite wood and solid softwoods can emit VOCs and SVOCs. Composite woods are made from wood particles and adhesives, or resins that bind the wood particles together. The adhesives and resins are made from chemicals that release VOCs and SVOCs.
Cushion & Padding. Cushions and furniture padding is often made from polyurethane foam, which can be created from more than 7 types of chemicals that fall into the VOC, SVOCs and HAP lists. (1)
Finishes. Wood and metal paints, wood stains and sealers, veneers, laminates, and melamine are all types of finishes that are commonly applied to furniture to give it a finished look. Paints, stains, and sealers are often high in VOCs and SVOCs.
Veneer, a thin piece of hardwood that is glued to the furniture surface for a certain appearance, is often glued using adhesives that off-gas. Laminate, made from either a very thin piece of wood in resin or a resin that has been printed to look like wood, is made from a combination of chemicals. Melamine is similarly a resin that is made from chemicals including formaldehyde, a known VOC, being one of the main ingredients. (2)
The short answer is that it varies. Let’s look at two larger classifications of chemicals that are well known for off-gassing.
Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. VOCs off-gas throughout the life of the product. However larger amounts of off-gassing occur in the first several years. The information varies when it comes to the exact number of years VOCs “significantly off-gas,” and it would vary by the materials, whose chemicals have varying levels of off-gassing.(3) Sometime VOCs can be smelled, but not always.(4)
Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds or SVOCs. SVOCs off-gas more slowly and consistently throughout the life of the product. SVOCs are just as important as VOCs but they have received less attention since they’re tougher to measure, and therefore, more difficult to understand. (5)
SVOCs and other chemicals off-gas and can attach to other porous materials, like fabric. They also attach to dust particles. When SVOCs attach to fabrics and dust, then can be removed by washing the fabric and dusting frequently. (6)
When products such as furniture off-gas, chemicals are emitted into the air. We inhale, ingest (from being absorbed by food and the dust on our hands), and absorb these chemicals at home. (7)
Health effects from VOCs and SVOCs can be both short-term and long-term. Below are a few examples:
1. Minimize off-gassing. First, choose furniture that has as few chemicals as possible to minimize off-gassing. Limiting your exposure to VOCs is the best strategy for protecting your health. (10)
2. Provide outdoor time. When the plastic is first removed from furniture (and other products), VOCs and SVOCs enter your indoor air. If possible,, remove packaging outdoors to keep the initial concentrated off-gassing fumes out of your home.
3. Air out furniture. Hard surface furniture can be left outside to air out. If it’s pollen or mold season consider wiping off the furniture before bringing it in the house. Soft surface furniture (and hard surface furniture too) can be set in a lightly-used room to off-gas. Open windows to let fresh air into the room, and the entire house. Fans can be used to increase fresh air circulation.
4. Filter air. Air filtration units that have active charcoal or a carbon filter can help remove airborne gases. Consider adding a portable air filter that has a carbon filter to the room where furniture is off-gassing.
If you’ve recently purchased new furniture and are experiencing symptoms, consider letting the furniture off-gas longer or returning it to the store. When preparing to buy new furniture consider purchasing pieces made from natural materials. Consider the material, coloring, and finishes used for construction of the frame, padding or cushion, and covering.
Unpackage furniture outdoors so that gases trapped in the packaging are released outside of the home. Once inside, fill the house with fresh air so that gases can dissipate to the outdoors. Running an air filter that has activated charcoal or a carbon filter can also help reduce the amount of airborne gases from new furniture's off-gassing.
With advanced planning and research, off-gassing from chemicals in new furniture might be minimized along with health effects.
(3) Tox Town - VOCs
(4) (8) (10) Minnesota Health Department - VOCs
(5) (6) (7) (9) Berkley Lab - SVOCs
Access Sophia's shopping list for her household staples. They're her favorite low toxic items that she can't live without.