Does the foam padding in most vintage furniture contain flame retardants?
October 23, 2012 3:42 PM   Subscribe

How long have furniture manufacturers been dousing foam padding with chemical flame retardants? My husband and I would like to start a family in the near future and we're trying to eliminate and replace our PBDE-saturated furniture in order to create a safer environment for baby. All the new organic/ natural latex padded furniture we've found is way out of our price range, so I'm wondering if vintage finds (sans lead paint) might be another safe alternative?
posted by lmpatte2 to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would take the opposite approach and pick newer furniture - as of 2005, pentaBDE and octaBDE were disallowed in the USA, and as of end of 2012, decaBDE will not be allowed in the USA.
posted by saeculorum at 3:56 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

I believe there are both state and federal laws that govern the use of flame retardants, and if so, you might find differences in what retardants are used when purchasing in different states (on the other hand, maybe all sellers adhere to California standards). Some retardants are considered more benign than others, and Arlene Blum is a considered to be an expert on that topic.
posted by Dansaman at 3:57 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

PBDEs have been in wide use since the 1970s (and prior to that other chemicals were used, such as PBBs). Most vintage furniture may have flame-retardants in it; antiques might be a better bet.
posted by vorfeed at 3:58 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't answer your question with regards to PBDEs, but...

I bought a Naturepedic organic cotton crib mattress for $400 and recently sold it (after 2 years of use) for $175. Maybe looking used might make it financially easier? Get 'downstream' from an organic / crunchy family - people LOVE to give baby stuff away!
posted by PorcineWithMe at 3:58 PM on October 23, 2012

I can't find a source, but I believe it dates back to a change in California's foam flammability tests in 1975, so furniture which predates this would be fine. Unfortunately, foam deteriorates as it ages, so this may not be a good strategy. Anything which is "traditionally" upholstered with horsehair pads over springs instead of foam will be safe.

As saeculorum notes, public opinion is shifting, and Citizens for Fire Safety was disbanded in August of this year after the Chicago Tribune published an excellent investigative series on this issue.
posted by pullayup at 4:01 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

This article that ran recently in the New York Times magazine dates it to 1975. That was when the California mandate went into effect. Since furniture manufacturers didn't want to make different furniture for different states, the chemicals went into everything nationwide. Key observation in the article: As chemicals are found to be hazardous, manufacturers come up with replacements (because they still don't want the furniture to easily catch fire), but the replacement chemicals are sometimes worse.
posted by Longtime Listener at 4:02 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm gonna have to disagree with the horsehair padding suggestion --- maybe it's just the particular horsehair furniture I personally got to sit on as a kid at Grandmom's, but that stuff is uncomfortable.
posted by easily confused at 4:27 PM on October 23, 2012

Warning for sensitive people: Part 1 of the excellent Chicago Tribune series that pullayup mentions upthread has some really awful descriptions of burns. I would like to unread them.
Vintage furniture can be a good answer if it predates 1975. Plus, as a bonus, you don't really have to worry about VOC offgassing for stuff that's been kicking around that long. A couple of caveats: If upholstered furniture seems like it's really nice, it may have been reupholstered, using foam that was treated with PDBEs. If it's nice and hasn't been reupholstered, it's likely to be pricey.

I think you're better off hunting craigslist for used natural furniture.
posted by purpleclover at 5:03 PM on October 23, 2012

Wow, thanks for all the great answers! As a first time poster, I now have no idea how I've survived for this long without utilizing the invaluable wisdom and benevolence of this community! I'll read up PBBs -- Hadn't heard of those before. If they don't turn me off of vintage furniture entirely, I may gradually convert our family room to a mid-century modern style, starting with a couple of 1960s leather arm chairs I just found on craigslist.

It's also good to know that furniture made after 2005 is at least free of some of the scariest stuff. That means that the sectional we bought in 2008 which I've not been able to properly relax on ever since finding out about PBDEs probably isn't as hazardous as I thought. Buuut, who knows... As Longtime Listener pointed out, maybe it's worse.
posted by lmpatte2 at 5:45 PM on October 23, 2012

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