How well do you know your couch? Whether you're an (organic) couch potato or rarely plop down for popcorn and a movie, there's likely more than meets the eye (and I'm not talking about all the change hiding under the cushions. Chances are that your cushions are also hiding oil-derived chemicals, multi-syllabic flame retardants and other synthetic industrial chemicals that have the potential to be quite harmful to you, your family and even your pets.
When it comes to spotting the best green options, we mentioned the environmental, health and social implications for finding and purchasing wood furniture, and all of those hold true for upholstered furniture as well, as most sofas, loveseats, chaise lounges, and lounge chairs have wooden frames. Once you've got the wood nailed down (so to speak), you can move on to what's in your cushions. Generally, there are three options for upholstered cushions:
The most common option, and, unless you've specified otherwise, what you almost certainly have in your home now. While it's very resilient and comfortable for use in furniture, it's also highly flammable -- it is a petro-based polymer, after all -- which often requires large amounts of flame retardants to be added so the material is safe for household use. This combination of polyurethane and chemical flame retardants is problematic for a few reasons.
While it is not rated for carcinogenicity, and no exposure limits for polyurethane have been established by the US government, polyurethane dust can cause irritation to the eyes and lungs and other as-of-yet unmeasured (by the government, at least) health problems. One example of polyurethane's many charms: it's made with toluene diisocyanate, a chemical that contributes to indoor air pollution and is a possible carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Doesn't sound like something you'd want to lay down on, does it?
The flame retardants aren't any picnic either, sadly. Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) is a common flame retardant that, despite bans in Europe starting in 2004, are still in wide use here in the US today; California banned them, effective January 1 of this year, and Washington state and Maine have begun phasing them out with laws at the state level. The problem with PBDEs is that they accumulate in our bodies -- and get passed on to our children through breast milk -- and may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity, and neurodevelopmental toxicity. In short, they're definitely to be avoided. So what are the alternatives?
The first line of defense is to go with soy-based foams, which blend the petrol-derived polyurethane foams with the more natural, more healthy soy foam. Still, most manufacturers are only blending 20 percent, or so, of the soy foams, leaving the polyurethane variety as the other 80 percent. And, as soy increases in popularity not only as food but as a feedstock for biofuel, there are increasing agro-political implications of growing soy; mostly, that means that farmers are growing more of it, some using genetically-modified seeds, some using more pesticides so it'll grow more quickly and "cleanly," and some replacing their other crops with soy to grow what's known as a "monoculture," where one crop is grown exclusively or dominates a farm's harvest. There's a lot more to the story (for another post), but, in short, soy isn't a perfect crop, though it sure is a nice alternative to polyurethane.
Soy foam has a strong (some might say disagreeable) odor, and, as manufacturers figure out how to neutralize that, expect to see higher blends of soy foam; until then, it's a great first step away from the petro-foams. But your best, greenest option still remains.
Natural latex foam
Derived from rubber trees (and collected in a similar manner to maple syrup), latex foam is the greenest option for upholstered cushions. Not only does it come from a renewable resource (trees, instead of the oil the polyurethane requires) but it's inherently resistant to mold, mildew and dust mites, and is available with PBDE fire retardants.
100% natural latex is also the most expensive of the bunch, owing its expense to the increasingly scarce rubber sources, but latex can be synthetically produced (what's called Styrene-Butadiene Rubber, or SBR, is the most common) and blended with its natural version to reduce cost. This isn't a perfect solution, either, because SBR off-gases 4-PC, a mucuous membrane and eye irritant often used in carpets.
There are other options, too, that don't include foam at all, but that's another post. For now, keep in mind all the ingredients for cleaner, greener cushions in your home; stay tuned for more on finding better options for your furnishings, including considerations for your furniture's upholstery itself, which is up next.
Difficulty level: Moderate