Critics have targeted IKEA for years on issues ranging from its amorphous profit and non-profit corporate (and tax) structure, its questionable sourcing of wood for its product line, and even the background of its founder, Ingvar Kamprad. A debate over IKEA’s business practices and environmental impact raises passions on both sides. In fairness, the company has made some solid environmental choices: they’ve eliminated plastic bags from its check-out aisles, eliminated polyvinylchloride (PVC) from almost all of its products, and reduced packaging overall. Now the’ve announced another solid move: the company is phasing out a toxic flame retardant from its furniture.
The flame retardant problems is a difficult one for IKEA to solve. Despite the fact that flame retardants contain a skin-absorbable carcinogenic, manufacturers who wish to sell in California must include them in order to comply with state laws. Interestingly, IKEA’s announcement comes just one day after a scathing article in Slate Magazine that questions why furniture contains such high levels of these chemicals in the first place.
The trouble started when Slate reporter Florence Williams tore the packaging of a new IKEA futon that she ordered online, only to be bowled over by the noxious smell that permeated her basement. Williams started researching the smell and found out that the substance was chlorinated tris, the dreaded carcinogen that was once in children’s pajamas until studies shown that it could be absorbed by skin.
Despite this danger to human health the American chemical industry has lobbied Congress and state legislatures to mandate fireproofing of furniture and other consumer products for years. The results are long lasting, and not in a good way: years after some carcinogens were banned, they still persist in the food chain and in may even cause chronic disease. (As this went to press, we cannot confirm or deny that any chemical residue can be found in the famous Swedish meatballs that IKEA serves in its brightly lit cafeterias.)
The upshot is that when Williams contacted IKEA, the company’s representatives explained that chlorinated tris will be phased by August 2010. The replacement: “an organo-phosphorous compound which gets incorporated into the polymer matrix of the foam filling.” If you think that term is difficult to decipher, then imagine how safe that replacement may be.
IKEA is boxed in by regulations that lawmakers may have been passed with good intentions, but of course are backed by industries who benefit from such a mandate—which is especially absurd because those fire retardants do not stop fire, they delay it—by a few minutes. It is easy to slam big box stores on issues like this one, but IKEA has been taking additional steps in helping their customers achieve energy efficiency and a smaller environmental impact, including last week’s announcement that the retailer will no longer sell incandescent bulbs—which practically eliminates one of its product lines, those sleek lamps that are in many a living room and office.
So what is the solution? An old-fashioned letter-writing (or email-sending) campaign may just need to start. If we cannot find a solution to replace a chemical which does more harm than good, maybe laws passed over 30 years ago need to be repealed. Remember that the BP crisis has an effect far beyond the environment and energy needs: so many of the chemicals that are in homes come from petroleum, giving us another reason to rethink our dependence on oil.