Foam for upholstery cushions

20 01 2010

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Two weeks ago I discussed the three components in a piece of upholstered furniture which contribute the most to its carbon footprint:  wood, foam and fabrics.  But carbon footprint is only one facet of a product’s environmental impact, so last week we looked at other issues associated with wood.  This week we’ll examine foam.  In putting together this information on foams, I have leaned heavily on a series of blog postings by Len Laycock (CEO of Upholstery Arts), called “Killing Me Softly”.  Please see his posts – and check out their fabulous furniture – like this sofa:  

In an upholstered piece of furniture, the cushions need a filler of some kind.  Before plastics, our grandparents used feathers, horsehair or wool or cotton batting.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  You will now commonly see polyurethane foam, synthetic or natural latex rubber and the new, highly touted soy based foam.  We’ll look at these individually, and explore issues other than embodied energy :

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
    • Both methyloxirane and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California
    • Both are on the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
    • Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors. However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.   There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure and isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

I found this on the Sovn blog:

“the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it  mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs (other than the chemical “witch’s brew” described above):  besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam can release a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide. Of these chemicals, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide are considered lethal. When breathed in, it deprives the body of oxygen, resulting in dizziness, headaches, weakness of the limbs, tightness in the chest, mental dullness, and finally a lapse of concsiousness that leads to death. Many of these are considered potential carcinogens or have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighted by the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil),  and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam.

Natural or Synthetic latex: The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”.   Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia, through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and  is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it. Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams[2]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain.  Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!  Being  petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Next I would like to talk about those new soy based foams that are all the rage, but I don’t want to bite off too much.   Plus I’m a bit overwhelmed by the data. It’s a big topic and one that deserves its own post.   So that’s going to be next week’s post!

[1] DFE 2008 Office Chair Foam;

[2] Op cit.,

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13 responses

20 01 2010

This article interested me because I was seriously injured when the Long Beach Mississippi school board allowed a roofing contractor to apply a spray on foam roof during the school day.

See my story Toxic Justice

And follow me on Twitter

31 12 2010

Very handy article, thanks for this. I found the different types of foam to be overwhelming at first.. and expensive!

11 09 2013

Some foams are inexpensive and toxic. Your money may not be spent on the synthetic foam itself, but on pharmaceuticals and doctors as your health is destroyed.

I suppose this is a period of time where money should be spent on antiques, furniture of the period prior to the 1970’s when pillows were of a more natural nature.

The mattress I bought recently is from OMI –Organic Mattress Inc. But other mattresses made by SavvyRest are also organic as in the method of production from the Rubber tree to the consumer WITHOUT BEING altered with biotechnology and petrochemicals. They may cost more than the toxic foam in the short term, but are far healthier in the long term.

Maybe you could contact SavvyRest and see about purchasing their foam and then make the foam into cushions covered with organic cotton, which is not grown with TOXIC AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES.

3 11 2011
hello welcome

Admirable writing!

17 01 2012
Postscript & polyurethane. | Tink Stephenson

[…] However, it turns out that polyurethane, in a number of forms, including foam, is used in a  very large number of consumer products. And a few hours of online research turned up the following information on the website of O Ecotextiles, a Seattle based company created by two women who wanted to ‘to change the way textiles are made by proving that it’s possible to produce luxurious, sensuous fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable’. This is from their page addressing foam for upholstery cushions: […]

27 05 2012

2 and a half years later and your contribution is still helping readers. Thank you very much.

4 09 2012
Fred Blogs

If you are searching for help in the selection of the correct type of foam rubber for any project, can I suggest that this site may be worth a look. They have extensive knowledge of the area and are always willing to help.

7 05 2014
Elise Wolf

The production of all natural latex from the tree is not sustainable. Palm oil and rubber tree plantations are responsible for taking out rainforests in South America, Indonesia, and now China. The rubber tree is not native to either Indonesia or China.

7 05 2014
O Ecotextiles

Hi Elise: Thanks for your comment. We agree that natural latex is not sustainable – simply because the pressure of population means that we strain our resources to the limit (by planting the trees in former rainforests, for example). But at this time, it’s the only product (other than horsehair, wool batting or cotton) which is safe to live with. That makes it a better choice to live with than polyurethane or soy/poly blends (in the short term) – as long as we don’t look into what that means in terms of environmental damage (the long term). But we absolutely need to discover an alternative (perhaps a safe synthetic latex?) or learn to accept cushioning that does not have the same qualities as polyurethane or latex.

2 07 2014
Tracy French

Your blog is really informative gathered with valuable information for foam and upholstery cushions…thanks for sharing this information it really helps me …

15 11 2014

How can consumers tell the difference between actual latex vs synthetic latex if synthetic latex is referred to as 100% natural latex? What questions can we ask suppliers to determine what we are getting? I want to have my sofa reupholstered and finally found a upholsterer that uses latex. They gave me the name of their supplier who says their latex is 100% natural latex. That is all they seem to know. How do I know what is actually being used?

15 11 2014
O Ecotextiles

That’s why we’re big fans of third party certifications. And now there is a Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) which is a third party certification which warrants the latex is made from 100% tree sap – and reassures you that you get only natural latex and not some percent of styrene butadiene.

19 11 2014

Thanks so much for your reply. Do you know where I can purchase GOLS certified upholstery “foam” for my upholsterer to use? I have been able to find already manufactured mattresses and sofas with GOLS, however, I have not been able to find it sold as a retail product for reupholstery. I live in Philadelphia and found one place in San Francisco that sells it but she really urged me to find someone on the East Coast as she said shipping would be outrageously expensive, not to mention not very carbon footprint friendly.

Any insight would be greatly appreciated!

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