What’s the Deal with Toxics in Furniture?


When you think about what you want your office furniture to do or to be, you most likely focus on how comfortable it is, how easy to clean it is, or how it will look in the space. Whether that piece of furniture at work can exacerbate your asthma or even potentially make you more susceptible to developing chronic conditions like cancer is probably not one of your top considerations. And rightfully so – furniture should not be a health concern for anyone. But sadly, it is.

Harmful Chemicals in Furniture Remain a Big Problem

There are a number of toxic chemicals and materials that are added to office furniture to make it more resistant to fire, stain-proof, or to reduce its weight. CEH has identified the 5 most commonly used bad offenders and termed them the “Hazardous Handful.” These include:

  • Toxic flame retardant chemicals
  • Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance (PFAS) often used as stain treatments
  • Antimicrobials
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including formaldehyde
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC/Vinyl)

Many of these chemicals can easily escape from furniture and make their way into our air, dust, bodies, and environment and they have been linked to multiple forms of cancers, neurodevelopmental and reproductive disorders, as well as many other serious health problems. To make matters worse, the benefits that these chemicals supposedly bring to furniture are often minimal or even nonexistent.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shift from conventional office space setups to more work-from-home spaces, this just brought the problem of exposure to harmful chemicals into our homes. Given that we spend 90% of our time indoors, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and that reports estimate that demand for office furniture will continue to rise, it is paramount for you and your workforce to select safer alternatives that do not put your health at risk.

How CEH Can Help

CEH has tackled the problem of harmful chemicals in office furniture for several years now. By working directly with large businesses and organizations like Kaiser Permanente, LinkedIn, the 10 campuses of the University of California, and the City of Portland, we have directly influenced more than $500 million buying power annually towards healthier furniture.

Our latest work has brought 3 new major resources that these and other organizations can use to more easily select healthier furniture.

  1. Healthy Furniture Database

Our first resource is our comprehensive Healthy Furniture Database. This database is in its 3rd iteration, with this latest update being the largest to date. The database now contains 70 major office manufacturer brands and features nearly 4,300 products. These products are either 3rd party certified to be free of the Hazardous Handful through BIFMA’s targeted chemical elimination criteria or through Greenhealth Approved furnishing seal or through GreenSceen’s certification for healthier furniture and fabric.  A subset of the products were also self-certified, but they will only be featured until the end of the year unless they finalize their 3rd party certification.

  1. NASPO Valuepoint Furniture Database

The second major resource we created was the NASPO Valuepoint Furniture Database. This database, which is a subset of our larger furniture database, features products sold through the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) Valuepoint contract that are 3rd party certified to not contain the Hazardous Handful. The 10 major manufacturers and over 900 products featured are intended to make healthy furniture procurement easy for the states and other entities that participate in the NASPO furniture contract.

  1. Healthier Office Furniture Toolkit

Finally, CEH updated and compiled all of our furniture procurement tools into our Toolkit for Healthier Office Furniture. These tools include things like our Technical specifications for furniture and fabric which can be used to specify furniture requirements in requests for proposals (RFPs), requests for Information (RFIs), or in contracts; our Checklist for healthier furniture purchasing, which walks purchasers through the considerations that should be made when purchasing furniture; and our Purchaser’s Pledge, which is our model commitment to selecting healthier furniture. All these resources will make it easier for purchasers who are looking to transition to healthier furniture, and will empower those who have already committed to more sustainable purchasing to stay the course.

What Can You Do?

Everyday consumers can also do their part to move the furniture market toward safer alternatives and protect the health of their families. Consider urging your employer to adopt an environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) policy that prioritizes products without the hazardous handful. When shopping for you and your family, avoid products that tout “stain resistance” or “waterproofing” as these most likely contain harmful PFAS chemicals. Similarly, steer clear of furniture that claims to prevent bacterial spread or growth. These products use antimicrobials that  have not been found to prevent the spread of disease and may lead to the proliferation of superbugs. Finally, avoid furniture that has a flammability label noting compliance with TB117 or TB133 since harmful and ineffective flame retardant chemicals almost certainly were used in its production. Instead, look for products with a TB 117-2013  product label (often found on the bottom of the product or under a couch cushion) with a check box indicating that flame retardant chemicals were not added.  You can also identify products without flame retardants if the product label says “ Complies with the U.S. CPSC requirements for upholstered furniture flammability” and ideally also contains the TB 117-2013 label with the check box indicating that flame retardant chemicals were not added.