How Your Couch Could Be Making You Sick

Monday Dec 16 | BY |
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While you’re snoozing, you could be exposed to flame retardants,
which have been linked to hormone disruption.

It looks so innocent sitting there in the living room. Soft. Warm. Inviting. But lurking underneath those plush cushions could be a number of toxins waiting to make you sick.

According to a 2012 study, chemicals that protect your furniture from fire—called flame-retardants—are widespread in couches. Meanwhile, research has linked flame-retardants with hormone disruption, neurological toxicity, and some forms of cancer.

Couches can also harbor dust, mold, grime, allergens, and more that can affect your health. Here’s more and how to protect yourself and your family.

Flame Retardants & More

To meet flammability standards, manufacturers have been treating the foam and other materials in couches and other pieces of furniture with flame-retardants. According to Duke University researchers, flame-retardants are most common in couches five years old or less. They also discovered other things:

  • 85 percent of the 102 couches tested were treated with some type of untested or potentially toxic flame retardant
  • 24 percent contained foam treated with chlorinated Tris (a probable carcinogen)
  • 17 percent contained the now-banned flame retardant PBDE (linked to reduced fertility, low IQs in children and thyroid problems)
  • The flame retardants used in couches make up to 11 percent of the polyurethane’s foam total weight

Meanwhile, the studies linking flame-retardants to health problems are numerous. Here are a few:

  • A 2013 study by researchers at the National Institutes of Environmental Health found that “TBBPA,” a widely used flame retardant, triggers cancer in lab animals. TBBPA was introduced as an alternative after PDBEs were banned. The chemical is now detectable in the environment, in house dust and in people, including in umbilical cord blood and breast milk.
  • Another 2013 study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health discovered that commonly used flame retardants, called “brominated flame retardants (BFRs),” can mimic estrogen hormones and possibly disrupt the body’s endocrine system. Researchers noted the chemicals act like hormones in the body, bringing to proteins like estrogens do, and can result in the body having too much estrogen.
  • A 2003 study by the Silent Spring Institute found the flame retardant PBDE at levels in homes in the U.S. 10 times higher than in Europe.
  • A 2013 article in the Washington Post noted that studies in laboratory animals and humans have linked flame retardants to thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, advanced puberty and reduced fertility, and cancer. Meanwhile, other studies question the chemicals’ ability to effectively reduce the flammability of treated products.

Once you bring these chemicals into your home on your couch, they can migrate into house dust, and eventually be ingested by anyone who enters the home, but most likely by little children, who tend to come into contact more with dust when playing on the floor or putting little fingers into their mouths.

Other Potential Toxins

In addition to flame-retardants, your couch could expose you to a number of other chemicals. These include:

  • Dust: Linked to allergies and pesticide exposure.
  • Formaldehyde: A possible carcinogen, linked to eye, nose, and throat irritation. Found in glues, adhesives, particleboard, and plywood.
  • Cadmium: Found in pigments and fabric dyes, and linked to lung and kidney damage.
  • Chromium VI: A carcinogen used in some fabric dyes and pigments, and in leather tanning. Linked to ulcers, kidney, and liver damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pledged to investigate safer options to these chemicals, but so far, have not come up with a solution. To limit your exposure and to bring safer products into your home, try these tips:

  • Find manufacturers that use natural latex foam cushions. Choose organic latex to form the core of your purchase, as opposed to foam.
  • Check labels to be sure what you’re buying. Realize the label may not reveal all components. If not, contact the manufacturer directly.
  • If the label notes that the sofa meets California’s standards for flammability of upholstered furniture and can resist bursting into flames for 12 seconds, then it most likely contains flame retardant chemicals.
  • Look for older furniture sold at vintage stores, before flame retardants were used.
  • Find companies that sell flame retardant-free furniture.
  • Keep the house well ventilated and dust often.
  • Vacuum frequently with a machine equipped with a HEPA filter, which helps trap small particles.

What do you think of these studies? Are you going to shop for a new couch? Please share!

* * *

Heather M. Stapleton, et al., “Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in U.S. Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out,” Environ. Sci. Technol. 2012, 46(24): 13432-13439,

Paul Rogers, “New study: Toxic flame retardants fall dramatically in pregnant women in California,” San Jose Mercury News, September 25, 2013,

Johanna Congleton, “New Research Explores How a Widely Used Fire Retardant Could Trigger Cancer,” EWG, September 3, 2013,

Robin Mackar, “3-D Images Show Flame Retardants Can Mimic Estrogens in NIH Study,” National Institutes of Health, August 19, 2013,

“House Dust Contains Carcinogens and Untested Chemicals Used in Flame Retardants in Consumer Products,” Silent Spring Institute,

Liza Gross, “Flame retardants in consumer products are linked to health and cognitive problems,” Washington Post, April 15, 2013,

Deirdre Imus, “Don’t get too cozy: Your couch may be toxic,” Fox News, December 6, 2012,

Kate Sheppard, “Your Couch May Be Killing You,” Mother Jones, November 29, 2012,

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho.


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