IKEA Phasing out Toxic Flame Retardants in Furniture

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.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

28 responses

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  2. Thank you for this article. As an expecting parent, it is horrifying to learn about the toxicity of products we expose our children to. Certainly few studies have been conducted on the cumulative effects of this exposure, but I would bet a thorough analysis would not paint a positive picture for the manufacturing industry. It is obscene that “safe” products that are made of more natural materials are the most expensive – a privilege of the well off and educated – while affordable products are loaded with unrepresented toxins. A recent gift of a changing table led me to follow the path of the piece of particle board it contained, which met California standards for formaldehyde – but still includes formaldehyde. This led to the JPMA statement on formaldehyde, saying the risks are overstated and that they don't want to see access to new furniture limited for families. Why is any level of toxins acceptable? I'm certain that we live in a world gone mad! We're left to finding solid wood pieces used and generally limiting the “stuff” that will surround our newborn as s/he enters the world.

  3. Adam: your fears are so spot on. It's infuriating that laws that are purportedly for public safety are really the result of companies' lobbying Sacramento and DC. Let's just face it, if a fire snares your house, a few more minutes is not going to help out–considering the odds, I'd rather risk it than endure the long-term consequences of absorbing chemicals.

    Thanks for the response!

  4. Thanks for the feedback Leon. I wonder if it is a (hopefully) inevitable state of our evolution that we will come to terms and reconcile our fear of quick harm and death with our denial of long-term slow harm and death.

  5. I had a similar experience as Florence Williams when, 6 years ago, we bought a memory foam mattress that was so odorous, we would never have sat on it let alone slept on it. It lived in our living room for a week while we were waiting for it to air out (according to the store we purchased it from). It never aired out and we never slept on it. At the time, it seemed like a terrible thing, however, it lead to to do research on what exactly was that horrible smell. I went on within 6 months to open an organic mattress store, http://www.thenaturalsleepstore.com so the whole ordeal was a blessing in disguise. My store is mattress and bedding based, but avoiding toxic chemicals and living cleanly is a lifestyle for me. I’ve been appalled at the thought that all of our furniture and bedding has toxins in it. If a consumer wants an organic sofa, it will put you back about $6,000 which isn’t reasonable when you have children. I’ve been trying to do research with some companies that offer “green” or “eco friendly” furniture lines. You really can not get an answer as to what is added to the fabric or foam in order to allow the products to meet flame retardant laws. I’ve been on the phone with Pottery Barn (about their eco friendly furniture) and with Lee furniture (about their green line) and it seems like a consumer can not speak with someone at the company who knows anything about it. At first, Pottery Barn told me that the fabric wasn’t treated with anything, until I asked if the furniture was sprayed. The answer I got was that it was sprayed, but they had no idea with what. I’ve had the same furniture for well over 10 years (furniture that I bought while still in college) but I’m too scared to purchase anything new. My latest thought it to purchase an IKEA sofa that has slip covers or removable cushions, wash the cushions thoroughly, and then replace the foam inside with a natural latex foam. We will see how it goes. Entrepreneurs take note, there is a need in our country for a reasonably priced healthy living furniture line!

  6. Hi Corinna:
    I am a sustainable furniture manufacturer and can feel your pain. I produce a line of upholstered furniture with certified organic non toxic ingredients. My brand is EKLA HOME. Unfortunately, our ingredients are extremely expensive, and in order to meet the California flame standard WITHOUT chemical flame retardants,  we must double upholster our pieces as well which increases labor cost. Recently, I pulled our pieces from retail showrooms in order to pass along savings to customers like the ones you mentioned – young families. I am now selling at our former wholesale price, which brings our sofas in at between $2500 to $3500 dollars. They used to retail at the $6000 dollar price point with the retail margin.

     I am always looking for ways to bring prices down without compromising the integrity of our ingredients. Hopefully as awareness grows and people wake up to the toxicity of conventionally upholstered furniture, our prices will come down as volume increases. We make everything in California as well so pay an entirely different pay scale to those that are manufacturing off shore. This is also something to consider. I hope this helps. Thanks for your comment.

    1. Hi Emily,
      I just stumbled upon your comment and I hope that you can help me out. Just like many others I’m very concerned about the fire retardants in upholstery furniture in the US. I recently bought a POANG chair frame from IKEA, but not the matching cushion for it, because of the chemicals. Is there any way that your company could make me a simple cushion like that? I’ve got a 14 month old baby, so I’m trying hard not to bring poisons to our home and not break the budget at the same time.
      I appreciate your help, thank you!

  7. Has anyone heard of a bird picking at and ingesting the “paint” peeling off of the furniture? I recently noticed my lovebird picking at this and within an hour or so he died suddenly. He was only 6 weeks old and was perfectly healthy. The dresser was from Ikea.

  8. Why dosent Ikea just air everything out for along enough duration to remove the smells and then package it. I’m willing to pay a few bucks extra. I sure there are many logistic issues, but they can figure it out. That way it meets regulation and then is many times safer and less noxious. Something is better than nothing!

  9. Left furniture open in a room with our beautiful tropical fish and it killed them all. We have a three month old baby, I dread to think what it is doing to us. Scandal IMO

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