Kicking Toxic Chemicals Out of Office Furniture

A New Guide to Purchasing Healthier Furniture

Furniture is an often-overlooked source of chemical exposures that affects our health and an organization’s carbon and chemical footprint. Several types of toxic chemicals can migrate from furniture and make their way into our air, dust, and our bodies. Standard commercial and residential furniture may contain undisclosed hazardous and unnecessary chemicals, including toxic flame retardant chemicals, volatile organic compounds (including formaldehyde), fluorinated chemicals (PFAS), antimicrobials and toxic materials like polyvinyl chloride (vinyl). We refer to these five groups of chemicals as the “Hazardous Handful.”

Your organization’s purchasing decisions are an important opportunity to promote a safer and healthier workforce and environment. By making a few simple, cost-neutral choices when purchasing furniture, organizations’ health and sustainability leaders can seize a valuable opportunity to protect employees’ health, improve indoor air quality, reduce their organization’s carbon footprint, and broaden the market for safer products. This toolkit provides procurement, business, and learning tools to help you select healthier furniture.

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Exposure to chemicals in the Hazardous Handful has been associated with serious health consequences such as decreased fertility, cancer, reduced IQ, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, and hormone disruption.1 Hormone disruptors can make people more susceptible to illnesses like COVID, and places them at higher risk for a severe COVID infection.2Recent research has identified an association between high levels of certain PFAS chemicals and more severe courses of COVID.3 In some cases, Hazardous Handful chemicals can cause health problems not only for those who are initially exposed, but also for their future generations.4

Some of the most highly exposed people are workers in chemical and product manufacturing industries.5 Workers and people living near manufacturing sites are often already at-risk of health consequences due to socio-economic, geographic, racial, and other disparities.6 The environment is also severely affected when chemicals added to furniture pollute the air, water, and soil. The toxic burden begins with the extraction/mining and production of these chemicals and continues to the end of the furniture’s life as incinerators pollute the air, and landfills leach toxic chemical mixtures into surrounding soil and water, and release methane and other chemicals into the air.

Further, Hazardous Handful chemicals often do not even deliver the “benefit” advertised. For example, flame retardants in furniture have not been found to improve fire safety and can increase the toxicity of the fire.7 Similarly, there is no data to support that adding antimicrobials to furniture reduces the spread of infection.8 And evidence reveals that fluorinated chemicals may not provide the advertised benefit of stain repellency on furniture fabrics.9 As knowledge about chemicals of concern grows, it becomes increasingly clear that they are often unnecessary and that healthier alternatives exist.

The single best way to protect environmental and human health, including that of your employees, is not to purchase products containing the chemicals of concern in the first place. Given the longevity of commercial furniture products, the fact that we spend 90% of our time indoors where the concentrations of pollutants are “often 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations,10 buying healthy furniture without the Hazardous Handful and maintaining a healthy indoor environment is a critical organizational investment.

CEH has helped numerous organizations in selecting healthier products, including furniture, and has a team of experts ready to help guide you through the process of moving toward healthier building interiors. Here are a few testimonials:

“CEH is an objective, trusted scientific source of help to select healthier products. They are vendor neutral and their product evaluations enable us to prioritize employee health, well-being, productivity and comfort in our procurement.” Peggy Brannigan, LinkedIn, Program Manager, Global Sustainability

“CEH has been indispensable in making some of our green purchasing projects possible. Whether it is helping us develop our own specifications, building a list of preferable products or trying to figure out how to execute policies, CEH has consistently helped us put our values into action.” Chris Geiger PhD, Green Purchasing, San Francisco Environment Department

In this guide we have provided many procurement, business, and learning tools to help you select healthier furniture. If you would like CEH to assist you further in how to select healthier products, email us at to discuss your needs. Thank you for joining us in creating a healthier world!

CEH Tools to Help You Choose Healthier Furniture

Work With Your Supply Chain

Make the Business Case

Use CEH’s Technical Specifications

(For Bids and RFPs)

Use CEH’s Database of Healthier Furniture and NASPO Shopping Guide

Sign CEH’s Purchaser Pledge

Reasons to reuse, reupholster and remanufacture products

How to Know If Furniture Contains Chemicals of Concern

Checklist: Steps to Purchasing Healthier Furniture

This guide was produced by the Center for Environmental Health
Published March 2017
Updated April 2023

Many thanks to Green Science Policy Institute, Health Care Without Harm and Clean Production Action for their partnership and review of this information.

  1.  Young RK, Harden FA, Toms LM, et al. (2012). Health consequences of exposure to brominated flame retardants: a systematic review. Chemosphere, 106: 1-19.
    Dodson RE, Perovich LJ, Covaci A, et al. (2012). After the PBDE phase-out: A broad suite of flame retardants in repeat house dust samples from California. Environmental Science & Technology, 46 (24): 13056-66.
    US Environmental Protection Agency. Volatile Organic Compounds Impact on Indoor Air Quality. Retrieved January 2023 from:
    International Agency for Research on Cancer (2004). IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Volume 88 (2006): Formaldehyde, 2-Butoxyethanol and 1-tert-Butoxypropan-2-ol. Retrieved January 2023 from:
    National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. Vinyl Chloride. Retrieved January 2023 from:
    US Consumer Product Safety Commission (2014). Report to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel on Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives. Retrieved January 2023 from:
    Schettler T (2016). Antimicrobials in Hospital Furnishings: Do They Help Reduce Healthcare-Associated Infection? . Retrieved January 2023 from:
    Blum A, Balan SA, Scheringer M, et al. (2014). The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs). Environmental Health Perspectives, 123(5):107-111.
  2.  US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Underlying Medical Conditions. Retrieved January 2023 from:
    Birnbaum L and Heindel, J. (2020) Endocrine disrupting chemicals weaken us in our COVID-19 battle. Environmental Health News. Retrieved January 2023 from:
  3. Grandjean P, Timmermann CAG, Kruse M, et al. (2020) Severity of COVID-19 at elevated exposure to perfluorinated alkylates. PLoS One, 15(12):e0244815.
    Grandjean P, Andersen EW, Budtz-Jørgensen E, et al. (2012). Serum Vaccine Antibody Concentrations in Children Exposed to Perfluorinated Compounds. JAMA. 307(4):391–397.
  4. Mondal D. (2014). Breastfeeding: A Potential Excretion Route for Mothers and Implications for Infant Exposure to Perfluoroalkyl Acids. Environmental Health Perspectives, 122(2):187-92.
    Cowell WJ, Lederman SA, Sjödin A, et al. (2015). Prenatal exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers and child attention problems at 3-7 years. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 52(Pt B):143-50.
  5. Gravel S, Aubin S, Labrèche F (2019). Assessment of Occupational Exposure to Organic Flame Retardants: A Systematic Review. Annals of Work Exposures and Health, 63(4):386-406.
  6. National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (2004). Ensuring Risk Reduction in Communities with Multiple Stressors: Environmental Justice and Cumulative Risks/Impacts. Retrieved January 2023 from:
    Gochfeld M, Burger J (2011). Disproportionate exposures in environmental justice and other populations: the importance of outliers. American Journal of Public Health. 101 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S53-63.
    Estill CF, Slone J, Mayer A, et. al. (2020). Worker exposure to flame retardants in manufacturing, construction and service industries. Environment International, 135: 105349.  US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Retrieved January 2023 from:
  7.  US Consumer Product Safety Commission (2012). Staff Cover Letter on Upholstered Furniture Validation Memoranda. Retrieved January 2023 from:
    Babrauskas V, Blum A, Daley R et al. (2011). Flame Retardants in Furniture Foam: Benefits and Risks. Fire Safety Science, 10:265-278.
  8. Schettler, T (2020). Antimicrobials in hospital furnishings: Do they help combat COVID-19?. Retrieved January 2023 from:
    Schettler T (2016). Antimicrobials in Hospital Furnishings: Do They Help Reduce Healthcare-Associated Infection? . Retrieved January 2023 from:
  9. LaPier J, Blum A, Brown BR et al., (2023). Evaluating the Performance of PFAS Finishes on Upholstery Fabrics. AATCC Journal of Research (in press).
  10. US Environmental Protection Agency. Report on the Environment: Indoor Air Quality. Retrieved January 2023 from: