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Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that off-gas into your home are the stuff of nightmares. Unhealthy for you and your family, they also contribute to smog. Make your next bedroom purchase low-toxin with these eco-friendly furniture ideas.

Find it! Low-VOC furniture designers

Fall peacefully asleep in one of these stylish beds featuring natural latex rubber, low-VOC paints and stains, and nontoxic fabric finishes.

Before you buy

Another, less expensive way to bring low-toxicity furniture into your home is to purchase used or vintage furniture. Used furniture has already been fully off-gassed, so it will not carry VOCs. This will also help save raw materials while saving landfill space.

Choosing a low-VOC bed helps you go green because...

  • They’re not treated with chemicals or toxic paints and stains, thus reducing the amount of ground-level ozone released into your home.

Levels of VOCs have been found to be two to five times higher inside than outside, and new furniture can definitely contribute to low indoor air quality since many bed components can off-gas, including upholstery, foam, paints, and stains.[1] People can be exposed to these pollutants while in contact with products containing VOCs, and high levels can remain in the air long after, say, furniture has been purchased and brought home.

But VOCs are responsible for more than human health problems. They also contribute significantly to ground-level ozone (smog) production. Ground-level ozone harms ecosystems and vegetation, accounting for an estimated $500 million in reduced crop production each year in the United States.[2]

Paints and stains

Paints and stains applied to new and used furniture can quickly change a bed’s look and make it more durable, but they can also be big VOC-emitters. Government regulations continue to mandate decreasing amounts of VOCs in these furniture products and some manufacturers already produce low- or zero-VOC options. Nevertheless, the cumulative effects on indoor air quality of millions of gallons of latex paints and stains used in the US every year is significant. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that 9 percent of the airborne pollutants causing ground level ozone come from the VOCs in paint.[3]

According to a 2002 EPA study, latex versions of these finishers produce far fewer VOCs than oil-based paints, with only 2 to 5 percent VOC content in latex paints compared to 32 to 42 percent content in oil-based paints.[4] One ton of VOCs will be eliminated for every 1,000 gallons of low-VOC paint used.[5] In general, flat paints have fewer VOCs than glossy finishes, and white or lighter colors contain fewer VOCs than dark or bright paints.[6]

There are several less toxic options to conventional paints and stains:

  • Tung oil, which is derived from the nut of the tung tree, is a highly durable, nontoxic wood finish that's been used in China for centuries. It is thick like honey in its natural state.
  • Walnut oil is another option, resulting from the pressing of walnuts. It will harden into a food safe, satin finish, but is also suitable for furniture.
  • Linseed oil comes from flax seed and makes a great carrier for oil paints.
  • Milk paints, derived from milk ingredients, can be tinted with natural pigments and releases very little, if any VOCs.

Most of these natural oils can be thinned with petroleum solvents, making them toxic, but thinners from citrus fruits and other natural ingredients is possible.

Cushioned headboards and bed frames

Many retailers market textiled bedroom furniture with features like flame retardation, permanent-press, and stain- and water-repellent finishes, as well as spill resistance. These features may appeal to consumers for the convenience they bring, but the furniture will then typically contain chemicals like formaldehyde that can off-gas VOCs. In addition, many upholstery fabrics, particularly cotton fabric that has been bleached and/or dyed, contain chlorine that releases carcinogenic dioxins.

Cotton also has negative environmental effects: growing cotton requires heavy doses of water, and is sprayed with more pesticides than any other crop in the world.[7] Due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half the chemicals used as dyes or fixers end up as waste in rivers and soil.[8]

Some beds come with padded head- and footboards. Foam, a form of polyurethane (part of the urethane family of chemicals), can contain many toxins, including (but not limited to) formaldehyde, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and benzene. Conventional foam cushions also require scarce resources and toxic chemicals. The construction of approximately 2 pounds of polyurethane rigid foam requires nearly 800 pounds of water, 1.5 pounds of crude oil, and 0.9 pounds of coal, and produces waste consisting of 9 pounds of carbon dioxide as well as other solid and liquid waste byproducts.[9] Many furniture companies are starting to substitute more natural materials for foam, including natural latex, organic wool, or recycled-content products such as those made from plastic bottles.

Related health issues

Introducing VOC-laden furniture into a home can contribute to headaches, dizziness, fatigue, asthma, and other chronic problems. Additionally, long-term exposure to low-quality indoor air can lead to respiratory problems and cancer. PDBEs, commonly found in headboard and mattress foam, can disrupt brain and reproductive functions and have been shown to have harmful effects on fetuses.

Health effects from VOCs vary greatly depending upon the amount of chemicals in the air, time exposed, a person’s susceptibility, and existing medical conditions. Immediate symptoms that people have experienced soon after exposure include eye, throat or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness, and vision problems. Young children, people with breathing problems, and pregnant women should avoid paint and stain vapors.

Glossary

  • benzene: A flammable solvent used to make many household products, including detergents, nylon, paint, furniture wax, lacquer, resins, and oil (although its use in many other household products was banned in 1978). It is poisonous when ingested.
  • formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.
  • ground-level ozone: The main component of smog, ground-level ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react chemically with nitrogen oxides when it is sunny and hot outside. Many urban areas have high levels of this summertime pollutant but rural areas can have increased ozone levels too, as wind can carry ground-level ozone hundreds of miles from where it originates. Breathing ozone can cause a number of respiratory health problems; plus it damages ecosystems and vegetation, including crops.
  • nitrogen oxide (NOx): A group of highly reactive colorless, odorless gases that form when fuel is burned at high temperatures. The most common man-made sources of NOx are motor vehicles, electric utilities, and other industrial, commercial, and residential sources that burn fuels.
  • polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE): Foam and other furniture fillings are commonly treated with fire-retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which have been linked to brain and reproductive system disorders. A healthier alternative is wool, which is naturally fire resistant.
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Gases released by a wide variety of products that can create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog. VOCs can cause several health problems, ranging from headaches and respiratory inflammation to central nervous system disfunction, and are also considered a possible carcinogen by the EPA.

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