Published on March 14, 2019

There are plenty of studies that prove our favorite snacks are (sadly!) made with questionable preservatives or that the shampoo we’ve used since we were kids is packed with parabens. Now, research suggests that home decor might be made with some suspect materials, too.

When it comes to research done on home furnishings—largely, things like furniture and rugs—the findings don’t come without concern. Researchers at Duke University found materials used in furniture that have been linked to endocrine disruption, and even cancer. Other studies have shown that some carpets and rugs can contain flame retardants. Now, you don’t need to go and throw away all your furnishings—but there are a few things to know about the kinds of materials that might be found in your home, and the measures you can take to ensure a happy, healthy environment.

What to Keep in Mind

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHILIPPE SERVENT, COURTESY OF DIMORE STUDIO

Is your furniture a health risk? “The real answer is we don’t know,” explains William Weber, collective impact director at Healthy Building Network, or HBN. “The contents of many products are undisclosed, so we don’t know what’s in the products and materials we buy.” Simply put, there’s no FDA-equivalent to home decor that requires all brands to list the materials used.

Though the Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted to govern the use and safety of certain chemicals, there are approximately 85,000 approved chemicals that the government and consumers know very little about. “Something has to be proven to be harmful before it can be regulated,” Weber says. “In all of those 85,000 chemicals, only nine chemicals are regulated in any serious way. They’re the ones that you’d think of, like asbestos.”

The Concern: Upholstered Furniture and Mattresses

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Photography by LAURE JOLIET

According to Barry Cik, founder of organic mattress company Naturepedic, flame retardants are one of the biggest offenders. “The reason you see flame retardants everywhere is because most of our products today are made from petroleum,” he says. “There’s lots of polyurethane foam in mattresses, sofas, and upholstered chairs.”

There are different types of flame retardants, which have their own set of health hazards. A study by HBN noted halogenated flame retardants, which contain bromine or chlorine, have been linked to hyperactivity, reproductive risks, and cancer. Organophosphate flame retardants, on the other hand, have been linked to endocrine disruption and infertility.

The Concern: Plastic Goods

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY TREVOR SMITH

If you recently ditched disposable, plastic water bottles an eco-friendly, glass alternative, you may also be concerned about the presence of plastics in your furniture—but Cik notes that not all plastics are made equally. “Some plastics are synthetic, but aren’t going to hurt anyone,” he says. “If you need to use plastics, try to stick to polyethylene, polypropylene, polylactic acid as much as possible.”

The Concern: Carpet and Rugs

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAURE JOLIET

However, the same can’t be said for polyvinyl chloride (or PVC), a plastic polymer used as a binder in carpet and broadloom backing. According to HBN, PVC often contains toxic additives like organotins and phthalates plasticizers, the latter being linked to asthma, neurological diseases, as well as development and reproductive risks.

If the carpet has a backing, it should be a warning sign to any buyer,” adds Bahram Shabahang, co-founder and lead designer of Orley Shabahang, which makes non-toxic rugs. “Even some hand-knotted carpets that are not made well use glue to hold the rug together. The glue that is used is often the cheapest and most harmful in the market. Over time, the glue breaks down and we breathe in those chemicals.”

What You Can Do

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Photography by LAURE JOLIET

So, what can you do to foster a greener, healthier home? The best way to start, Weber says, is to get curious and ask questions to better build your personal understanding of what materials you surround yourself with. For starters, HBN has a host of studies and materials to read up on. Cik, on the other hand, recommends resources like the National Green Pages and Debra Lynn Dadd.

Another way to put your mind—and home—at ease is buying products from brand that have committed themselves to sustainability. “I think consumers will start to create the demand for transparency and non-toxic choices in the home just as they have done in the food and beauty markets,” says interior designer Emily Butler.

After working with a client who was extremely sensitive the chemicals in materials like glue and finishes, Butler realized that these items could have lasting effects on her clients and their homes. In 2018, she co-founded furniture company Ziggy, which uses formaldehyde-free plywood, sustainably sourced materials, and 100 percent water-based finishes.

“Ziggy is committed to a much higher standard with not only our wood materials, but our finishes as well,” she explains. “When we started Ziggy, we knew we as consumers didn’t want to be exposed to nasty chemicals, so why should we assume our customer would either?”

With any luck, more brands will take a page out of Ziggy, Naturepedic, and Orley Shabahang’s book and prioritize sustainability and transparency. “We all used to incandescent bulbs, then compact fluorescents, but LED [bulbs] were too expensive” Weber says. “Suddenly, LEDs are everywhere and nobody’s really thinking about it anymore. Hopefully, that same kind of market change can happen here.”

See more tips on healthy living:
How This Light-Filled Wellness Hub Is Reinventing Healthy Living
Everything You Need for a Healthy Home—Expert Approved
The Most Eco-Friendly Place to Find Furniture Isn’t a Store

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