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The Hidden Dangers of Cheap Furniture

Harmful toxins lurk in many manufactured products

You buy organic produce, use only natural cleaning products, or use ‘green’ pesticides in your yard, all to reduce your family’s risk of exposure to harmful toxins. However, you may have missed a major culprit of toxins that is likely in every room in your home—your furniture. Inexpensive or trendy furniture is often made by gluing veneers on top of manufactured wood or, for truly budget items, particle board. But most consumers have no idea what these wood substitutes really are.

Most manufactured wood is made from medium density fiberboard, or MDF. This is created from small wood fibers pressed and fused together. Particle board is made using a similar concept, except instead of fibers, it is created from wood dust. Furniture made from either MDF or particle board is often topped with a thin layer of real wood called a veneer, creating the illusion of a solid wood piece. What makes both wood types dangerous is the adhesive resins commonly used to form them; urea-formaldehyde (UF) or phenol formaldehyde (PF). These pieces off-gas, putting harmful VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) into your air. Formaldehyde is known human carcinogen that has been linked to cancer, especially leukemia, and cancers of the nose, throat, and sinuses. It is also linked to breathing problems for older people, children, and those with health conditions like asthma or COPD.  

And while not every piece of furniture made from manufactured wood or particle board contains UF or PF resins, it is difficult to know if what you are buying does or does not, as few restrictions or reporting requirements exist in the United States. Some manufactured wood furniture products may carry a California Proposition 65 warning, which requires companies that sell products in California to provide “clear and reasonable warnings” about a chemical’s ability to cause cancer, reproductive harm, or birth defects on packaging or labels. However, not all companies sell in California and some furniture products still contain Proposition 65 chemicals, but don’t meet the warning threshold.

Because there is no 100% way to tell what is and is not safe, the California Environmental Protection Agency recommends choosing formaldehyde-free furniture, such as solid wood, or if buying new manufactured wood furniture containing formaldehyde,  “airing it out” away from your home in a well-ventilated area.

Vinyl hazards

Unfortunately, wood products alone are not the only culprits found in furniture associated with toxins. Many items also contain polyvinyl chloride leather (PVC), commonly known as vinyl, a faux leather product that is much cheaper than real leather. PVC is polymerized from vinyl chloride (VC) monomer, a known human carcinogen. VC is linked to liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, and other serious health risks associated with the liver and other organs. 

The risk of vinyl products most dramatically impacts the workers that produce them and those who live in the surrounding areas where they are manufactured. In addition to increased chances of liver cancer and other liver diseases, VC factory workers often suffer from what has been coined “vinyl chloride disease,” a syndrome that causes blanching, numbness, and discomfort of the fingers upon exposure to cold, degeneration of the fingertip bones, joint and muscle pain, and stiffness of the hands with skin changes. An estimated 81,000 workers are exposed to VC in the United States and more than 2 million are exposed worldwide. 

VC has also been found as a contaminant in groundwater and air in communities near manufacturing facilities, which are disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. It has also been found in the vicinity of many hazardous waste sites and municipal landfills, due VC and VC biproduct disposal. 

The bottom line 

It is tempting to save money purchasing items made with these types of materials. Real wood and leather products are often significantly more expensive than their manufactured and imitation counterparts, but our Amish-crafted pieces use significantly less glue and little to no MDF or particleboard in construction. So before you hit “add to cart” on that next inexpensive table, bed or chair, consider the impact on yourself, your family, and your community. The real cost of budget furniture may be more than you bargained for.