Mad as a Hatter
My wife asked me what I was working on, the look on her face was priceless when I told her I was tasked with writing a blog title “Is your furniture killing you?”.
In nutshell I explained to her that some furniture is made with toxic materials that can be very harmful to our health and environment. With that said, let’s examine the question put before us.
The use of toxic material in textiles have a long history and most likely were the inspiration for Lewis Carol’s well known fictional character The Mad Hatter. Felt used to manufacture hats in the Victorian era contained mercury that often lead to hat-makers getting mercury poison and other illnesses affecting the nervous system, even leading to some of the makers being committed to an asylum. The author’s uncle worked in one of these asylums and it was reported that inmate activities included having tea parties. While the use of mercury in felt may have faded the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party has been immortalized in a book and even a classic ride in Disneyland.
Best Intentions Gone Astray
The use of flame retardant materials dates back to the 1950’s via chemicals like being added to make fabrics resistant to flames. In 1975, to protect consumers California introduced Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) that, unbeknownst to people at that time, led to the use of harmful and ineffective flame retardant chemicals in foam used in upholstered furniture and baby products.
While TB117 were well-intentioned, there are now concerns that the chemicals used in many fire retardants pose health risks including cancer, infertility, thyroid disease and more. As these retardants migrate out of the furniture products they can create a toxic dust that ends up in peoples’ bodies. TB117 was recently updated and replaced by TB117-2013 with standards that provide increased fire safety without the use of flame retardants (for more information on TB117-2013 please see our December 2018 blog).
A study from a team led by Kathryn Rodgers, published in the September 3rd issue of Environmental Science and Technology Letters, collected and sampled dust from four college campuses in New England. Based on the flammability standards (TB117vs TB117-2013), the study found the 43 different types of flame retardants detected varied from campus to campus. Campuses with outdated furniture (meeting the TB117 standards) had significantly higher levels than campuses with newer TB117-2013 compliant furniture.
This study makes a great case for updating old furniture that can present a hazard to one’s health, especially as the materials age and potentially release harmful particles into the surrounding environments. Replacing upholstered furniture that was manufactured prior to TB117-2013 is just one of many steps to creating a healthier work or study space and better indoor air quality.