We all know fast food is not good for us. But what about fast furniture?
Fast furniture not only suffers the same sustainable issue as fast fashion, by clogging up landfill, it can unknowingly impact human health.
Formaldehyde can be found in furniture made with MDF, particleboard, plywood and applied with paints, lacquers and coatings. Typically, this will be in the mass produced furniture, but not exclusively.
Why is this a health concern?
If you are among the 1 in 9 Australian asthma sufferers, formaldehyde is seen to be a trigger for the condition as well as a general respiratory irritant.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) consider formaldehyde to be a probable cause of cancer, specifically leukemia and nose cancer; possibly lung cancer. Whilst the levels in your coffee table may not be high enough to cause this serious health condition for you, it can, for the people handling and exposed to the chemical in the making of the materials that go into it.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are able to interfere with the body’s hormonal system and thought to affect human reproduction, puberty, and metabolism.
EDCs can be present in furniture and furnishings through some flame retardants, lead paint, stains and water resistant coatings.
Chemical exposure studies on humans is clearly difficult and it is not known what levels are safe. Environmental toxicologist, Professor Leusch from Griffith University says “until more is known, it may be a good idea to minimise our exposure to potential EDCs”.
Most at risk for EDC exposure are babies, children, and pregnant women.
Then there’s the issue of the planet’s health.
We’ve all seen the piles of household items and broken furniture at scheduled clean up times. A study of rubbish collection found that a Sydney household on average disposes of 24 kg of furniture a year destined for landfill.
IKEA sell a staggering 100 million pieces of furniture EACH year, using 1% of the world’s wood supply. Then there’s all the energy it consumes to chip the wood, and transport worldwide their super popular BILLY bookcase, IKEA sells one of, every 5 seconds.
Having been in the spotlight over a Russian logging scandal, IKEA are working with WWF to increase the percentage of renewable forest timber it uses, but what about other furniture makers?
With three times the area of Denmark of forests cut down or burned every year, there is a negative flow on effect to the climate and habitat of some people and animals, if they are not renewed.
My dream is for residential furniture buyers to have transparency of the “ingredients” and manufacturing process in the making of their tables, chairs and homewares, just as they are now used to labelling of organic, grain fed, and cage free eggs.
Until that day comes, here’s 7 things to watch out for with furniture selection for a healthier home and planet:
- PVC Vinyl is fortunately not a popular decor look anymore, but is found on some shiny leather-like look “fast” sofas and occassional chairs and shower curtains. Toddler ‘mini-me’’ occassional chairs are potentially covered in this fabric, and if so, should be avoided since it is known to be “poison plastic” emitting vinyl cholride monomer – a cancer causing agent.
- Fabric sofas and occassional chairs treated with flame retardant. Flame retardant contains those Endorine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), but it won’t necessarily be obvious if this has been applied. You will need to ask the question, and even look up the product material data sheet.
- Chipboard, MDF and plywood cabinets, shelves, chest of drawers, credenzas, tables. The binder used to make chipboard, MDF, and plywood for interiors can contain urea formaldehyde. It’s safer to opt for solid timber or another natural, renewable material like bamboo or rattan. Eco plywoods are available although not commonly used in furniture unless it’s a sustainable brand. Beware, solid wood may be used for frames, with chipboard, plywood, MDF used for fronts, backs, doors and drawers.
- Solid timber furniture made from a non-renewable source. Look for a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for the timber used in a furniture piece. FSC help the responsible management of our world’s forests. Look for a FSC label, certificate and chain of custody (COC) number. The COC number can be searched in a public database to validate the timber is from a FSC supplier or manufacturer.
- Lacqured, coated and sealed wood furniture e.g. tables, chairs, bed frames, coffee tables. We have become used to furniture being permanently coated to prevent stains and knocks. These coatings are typically toxic, however, there are many more low / non-toxic stain, wax and coatings available today. Although it is fair to say, they are not typically used on popular furniture and homewares brands.
- Furniture with a limited life. “A 2016 study by Origin Energy suggests Australians relocate an average of 13 times over a lifetime”. So, it is understandably tempting to buy fast for the here and now, and what fits into your current home. Pieces you really love, will usually find a place in whatever home you’re in. Multi-functional and adaptable pieces too ensure a longer life. Examples of these are the cots that convert into junior beds, side tables that act as stools, and extendable dining tables. If you need furniture for a limited time, it’s better to buy pre-loved as the chemical off-gasses will have subsided, and no new materials or manufacturing will have been consumed.
- Painted furniture. Just as it is better to choose low VOC or non-toxic paints on interior walls, be aware of what paint has been used on new furniture. VOCs can cause irritants and contribute to poor indoor air quality.
Choose a healthier option. Look for good and eco-friendly furniture when next buying or specifying taking particular care of the materials and coatings used.
To make this easier, check out my Sustainable Interior Styling Guide and the Furniture Directory section.
Image credits (from top):
- Ethnicraft Teak Madra King Bed @Oishifurniture