True cost of a conventional sofa

8 11 2013

Buying a sofa is a big committment: it dominates the room, costs a lot, and should be presentable for at least 10 years. So let’s say that you’ve cruised the stores, sat in the sofas, lifted them, pushed and probed – and decided on a version that looks and feels right. And you’ve made sure that your choice contained all the ingredients for a high quality sofa – hardwood frame (check), 8 way hand-tied springs (check); high density foam (check), and a decorative fabric that will last the entire 10 – 20 year estimated life of the sofa.

But is it organic?

Most people wouldn’t give that question a second thought, but we think it’s a critical question. Why? Well, let’s just assume you’ve chosen a conventionally produced sofa. That means:

1. The hardwood is not FSC certified, which means it comes from a forest that is not managed. That means you’ve chipped away at your children’s inheritance of this Earth by supporting practices which don’t support healthy forests, which are critical to maintaining life: forests filter pollutants from the air, purify the water we drink, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. They provide habitat for 90% of the animal and plant species which live on land. Forests are commercially important, too; they yield valuable resources like wood, rubber and medicinal plants, including plants used to create cancer drugs. Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products. If you have chosen a sofa which uses plywood, medium density fiberboard (MDF) or Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam), then you will also be living with formaldehyde emissions. To read more about why FSC certification is important, click here.

2. The sofa uses either polyurethane or soy foam. Even high density polyurethane foam – as well as soy foam, the new media darling – emits methyloxirane, which causes cancer and genetic mutations , and toluene, a neurotoxin . Your polyurethane/soy foams oxidize over time, sending these chemicals into the air, where you can breathe them in.  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. And because polyurethane and soy foams are basically solid gasoline, they often require flame retardant chemicals. To read more about soy and poly foams, click here  and here.

From blog.greensciencepolicy.org

From blog.greensciencepolicy.org

3. Your sofa uses fabric – made of anything from cotton to linen or polyester – which was produced without regard to the kinds of chemicals used in dyestuffs, processing or finishes. Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals, and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known – among them, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), flame retardants such as pentaBDE, PFOA.

There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used  –  because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all. Many studies have linked specific diseases with work in the textile industry – such as autoimmune diseases, leukemia and breast cancer. Some of the chemicals used in processing evaporate into your home’s air (such as formaldehyde), others (like lead) will be available in house dust – because every time you sit down or brush against the fabric, microscopic particles abrade and fly into the air. And remember, your skin is a permeable membrane. We are just beginning to understand how even tiny doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive periods of development, and how the endocrine system involves a myriad of chemical messengers and feedback loops. A fetus might respond to a chemical at one hundred-fold less concentration or more, yet when you take that chemical away, the body is nonetheless altered for life.  So infants may seem fine at birth, but might carry within them a trigger only revealed later in life, often in puberty, when endocrine systems go into hyperdrive. This increases the adolescent’s or adult’s chances of falling ill, getting fat, or becoming infertile, for example. For more on these issues, click here  and here

4. Finally, glues, varnishes, paint all contribute to the toxic load of evaporating chemicals if conventional products have been used on your sofa.

We are often asked about the perceived higher cost of going organic – but really, isn’t the true cost of a conventional sofa more than anybody should have to bear?





What kind of fabric for your new sofa?

26 09 2013

We’ve looked at the frame, suspension system and cushioning on a sofa;  next up:  fabric.  We consider fabric to be a very important, yet certainly misunderstood, component of furniture.  It can make up 40 – 45% of the price of a sofa.    So we’ll be breaking this topic up into several smaller bite size portions:  after a general discussion of what kind of fabric to choose for your lifestyle,  we’ll look at the embodied energy in your fabric choice, and then why an organic fabric is better for you as well as the rest of us.

One thing to remember is that there is much  more fabric used in constructing an  upholstered piece of furniture than just the decorative fabric that you see covering the piece – a typical “quality” sofa also uses about 20 yards of decorative fabric, plus 20 yds of lining fabric, 15 yds of burlap and 10 yds of muslin, for a total of 65 yards of fabric!

So what do people look for in an upholstery fabric?

After color, fabric durability is probably top of everybody’s list.  Durability translates into most people’s minds as “heft” – in other words, a lightweight cotton doesn’t usually come to mind.  A fabric with densely woven yarns tends to be more durable than a loosely woven fabric.  Often people assume leather is the best choice for a busy family.  We did a post about leather – if you’re at all considering leather, please read this first (https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/leather-furniture-what-are-you-buying/ ).  Another choice  widely touted is to use Ultrasuede.  Please see our post about this fabric: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/is-ultrasuede%c2%ae-a-green-fabric/.

Equally important in evaluating durability as the weight of the fabric is the length of the fibers.  Cotton as a fiber is much softer and of shorter lengths than either hemp or linen, averaging 0.79 -1.30 inches in length.  Hemp’s average length is 8 inches, but can range up to 180 inches in length. In a study done by Tallant et. al. of the Southern Regional Research Laboratory,  “results indicate that increases in shortfibers are detrimental to virtually all yarn and fabric properties and require increased roving twist for efficient drafting during spinning. A 1% increase in fibers shorter than 3/8 in. causes a strength loss in yarns of somewhat more than 1%.”[1]    In fact, the US textile industry has  advocated obtaining the Short Fiber Content (SFC) for cotton classification.  SFC is defined as the percentage of fibers shorter than ½ inch.  So a lower cost sofa upholstered in cotton fabric, even one identified as an upholstery fabric, could have been woven of short fiber cotton, a cheaper alternative to longer fiber cotton and one which is inherently less durable – no matter how durable it appears on the showroom floor.

Patagonia, the California manufacturer of outdoor apparel, has conducted  tests on both hemp and other natural fibers, with the results showing that hemp has eight times the tensile strength and four times the durability of other natural fibers.   Ecolution had a hemp twill fabric tested for tensile and tear strength, and compared the results with a 12-oz cotton denim.  Hemp beat cotton every time:   Overall, the 100% hemp fabric had 62% greater tear strength and 102% greater tensile strength. [2]   And polyester trumps them both – but that’s a whole different ballgame, and we’ll get to that eventually.

There is a high correlation between fiber strength and yarn strength.  People have used silk as an upholstery fabric for hundreds of years, and often the silk fabric is quite lightweight;  but silk is a very strong fiber.

In addition to the fiber used, yarns are given a twist to add strength. This is called Twist Per Inch or Meter (TPI or TPM) – a tighter twist (or more turns per inch) generally gives more strength.  These yarns are generally smooth and dense.

So that brings us to weave structure.  Weave structures get very complicated, and we can refer you to lots of references for those so inclined  to do more research (see references listed at the end of the post).

But knowing the fibers, yarn and weave construction still doesn’t answer people’s questions – they want some kind of objective measurement.  So in order to objectively compare fabrics,  tests to determine wear were developed (called abrasion tests), and many people today refer to these test results as a way to measure fabric durability.

Abrasion test results are supposed to forecast how well a fabric will stand up to wear and tear in upholstery applications.  There are two tests generally used:  Martindale  and Wyzenbeek (WZ).  Martindale is the preferred test in Europe; Wyzenbeek is preferred in the United States.  There is no correlation between the two tests, so it’s not possible to estimate the number of cycles that would be achieved on one test if the other were known:

  • Wyzenbeek (ASTM D4157-02):  a piece of cotton duck  fabric or wire mesh is rubbed in a straight back and forth motion on a      piece of fabric until “noticeable wear” or thread break is evident.  One back and forth motion is called a “double rub” (sometimes written as “dbl rub”).
  • Martindale (ASTM D4966-98):  the abradant in this test is worsted wool or wire screen, the fabric specimen is a circle or round      shape, and the rubbing is done in a figure 8, and not in a straight line as in Wyzenbeek.  One circle 8 is a cycle.

The Association for Contract Textiles performance guidelines lists the following test results as being suitable for commercial fabrics:

Wyzenbeek Martindale
General contract 15,000 20,000
Heavy duty contract 30,000 40,000

According to the Association for Contract Textiles, end use examples of “heavy duty contract” where 30,000 WZ results should be appropriate are single shift corporate offices, hotel rooms, conference rooms and dining areas.  Areas which would require higher than 30,000 WZ are: 24 hour facilities (like transportation terminals, healthcare emergency rooms, casino gambling areas,  and telemarketing offices) and theatres, stadiums, lecture halls and fast food restaurants.

Sina Pearson, the textile designer, has been quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying that 6,000 rubs (Wyzenbeek) may be “just fine” for residential use”[3]   The web site for Vivavi furniture gives these ratings for residential use:

Wyzenbeek
from to
Light use 6,000 9,000
Medium use 9,000 15,000
Heavy use 15,000 30,000
Maximum use >30,000

Theoretically, the higher the rating (from either test) the more durable the fabric is purported to be.  It’s not unusual for designers today to ask for 100,000 WZ results.  Is this because we think more is always better?  Does a test of 1,000,000 WZ guarantee that your fabric will survive years longer than one rated only 100,000 WZ?  Maripaul Yates, in her guidebook for interior designers, says that “test results are so unreliable and the margin of error is so great that its competency as a predictor of actual wear is questionable.”[4]  The Association for Contract Textiles website states that “double rubs exceeding 100,000 are not meaningful in providing additional value in use.  Higher abrasion resistance does not necessarily indicate a significant extension of the service life of the fabric.”

There are, apparently, many ways to tweak test results. We’ve been told if we don’t like the test results from one lab, we can try Lab X, where the results tend to be better.  The reasons that these tests produce inconsistent results are:

1. Variation in test methods:       Measuring the resistance to abrasion is very complex.  Test results are affected by many factors that include the properties and dimensions of  the fibers; the structure of the yarns; the construction of the fabrics;  the type, kind and amount of treatments added to the fibers, yarns, or fabric; the time elapsed since the abradant was changed;  the type of  abradant used; the tension of the specimen being tested,the pressure between the abradant and the specimen…and other variables.

2. Subjectivity:    The  measurement of the relative amount of abrasion can be affected by the method of evaluation and is often influenced by the judgment of the operator.  Cycles to rupture, color change, appearance change and so forth are highly variable parameters and subjective.

3. Games Playing:     Then there is, frankly, dishonest collusion between the tester and the testee.  There are lots of games that are played. For instance, in Wyzenbeek, the abradant, either cotton duck or a metal screen, must be replaced every million double rubs. If your fabric is tested at the beginning of that abradant’s life versus the end of its life, well.. you can see the games. Also, how much tension the subject fabric is under –  the “pull” of the stationary anchor of the subject fabric, affects the  rating.

In the final analysis, if you have doubts about the durability of a fabric,  will any number of test results convince you otherwise?  Also, if your heart is set on a silk  jacquard, for example, I bet it would take a lot of data to sway you from your heart’s desire.  Some variables just trump the raw data.

REFERENCES FOR WEAVE STRUCTURE:

1.  Peirce, F.T., The Geometry of Cloth Structure, “The Journal of the Textile Institute”, 1937: pp. 45 – 196

2. Brierley, S. Cloth Settings Reconsidered The Textile Manufacturer 79 1952: pp. 349 – 351.

3. Milašius, V. An Integrated Structure Factor for Woven Fabrics, Part I: Estimation of the Weave The Journal of the Textile Institute 91 Part 1 No. 2 2000: pp. 268 – 276.

4. Kumpikaitė, E., Sviderskytė, A. The Influence of Woven Fabric Structure on the Woven Fabric Strength Materials Science (Medžiagotyra) 12 (2) 2006: pp. 162 – 166.

5. Frydrych, I., Dziworska, G., Matusiak, M. Influence of Yarn Properties on the Strength Properties of Plain Fabric Fibres and Textile in Eastern Europe 4 2000: pp. 42 – 45.

6. ISO 13934-1, Textiles – Tensile properties of fabrics – Part 1: Determination of Maximum Force and Elongation at Maximum Force using the Strip Method, 1999, pp. 16.


[1] Tallant, John, Fiori, Louis and Lagendre, Dorothy, “The Effect of the Short Fibers in a Cotton on its Processing Efficiency and Product Quality”, Textile Research Journal, Vol 29, No. 9, 687-695 (1959)

[2]  http://www.globalhemp.com/Archives/Magazines/historic_fiber_remains.html

[3] ‘How will Performance Fabrics Behave”, Home & Design,  The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 11, 2008.

[4] Yates, Maripaul, “Fabrics: A Guide for Interior Designers and Architects”, WW. Norton and Company.





Sofa cushions – foam, soy foam or latex?

12 09 2013

So we have produced the frame and put in the suspension system.  Next in line are the cushions – something soft to sit on.

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.  Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 50 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.  Today, Eisenberg Upholstery’s website says that “easily 25% of all furniture repairs I see deal with bad foam or padding. The point is start with good foam and you won’t be sorry.”

Cushions are generally measured by two values:

  • The density or weight per cubic foot of polyurethane foam. The higher the number the more it weighs.   Foam that has a density of 1.8 foam, for example, contains 1.8 lbs of foam per cubic foot and foam that is 2.5 foam would have 2.5 lbs of foam per cubic foot.  Density for sofa cushions ranges between 1.6 and 5 or even 6.
  • The second measurement tells you the firmness of the foam  (called the IFD  – the Indentation Force Deflection). The IFD is the feel of the cushion, and tells you how much weight it takes to compress the foam by one third. The lower IFD will sit softer. The higher IFD will sit firmer.  IFD numbers range between 15 to 35

What many people don’t realize is that the density and firmness numbers go hand in hand – you can’t look at one without the other.  They are expressed as density/firmness, for example: 15/30 or 29/52.  The first, 15/30 means that 1.5 pounds of foam per cubic foot will take 30 pounds of weight to compress the foam 33%.  The second example means that 2.9 pounds per cubic foot of foam will take 52 pounds of weight to compress the block one third.

The foam is then wrapped with something to soften the edges – for example,  Dacron or polyester batting, cotton or wool batting or down/feathers.

Lowest quality sofas will not even wrap the (low quality) foam; higher quality sofas have cushions that are made from very high quality foam and wrapped in wool or down.  But as you will see, the foam is itself very problematic.

You will now commonly find in the market 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 in his series “Killing You Softly”, “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.” When untreated foam is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly are the toxic gasses produced by burning polyurethane foam –  such as hydrogen cyanide. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

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 releases 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.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighed 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 – not to mention the fact that even the best foams begin to break down after around 10 – 12 years of “normal use”.[2]

Now we see ads for a  new miracle product: a bio based foam made from soybeans, which is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock,  CEO of Upholstery Arts (which was the first furniture company in the world to introduce Cradle to Cradle product cycle and achieve the Rainforest Alliance Forest Stewardship Council Certification),  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   (I have leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.)

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe.

To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  1. it’s made from soybeans, a renewable  resource
  2. it reduces our dependence on fossil  fuels  by  both reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for      the feedstock  and  by reducing the energy requirements needed to produce the foam.

Are these viable claims?

It’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource:  This claim is undeniably true.   But what they don’t tell you is that this product, marketed as soy or bio-based,  contains very little soy. In fact, it is more accurate to call it ‘polyurethane based foam with a touch of soy added for marketing purposes’. For example, a product marketed as “20% soy based” may sound impressive, but what this typically means is that only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘based’ on soy. If you go to Starbucks and buy a 20 oz coffee and add 2-3 soy milk/creamers to it, does it become “soy-based” coffee?

It reduces our dependence on fossil fuels: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations. This means that while suppliers may claim that ‘bio foams’ are based on renewable materials such as soy, in reality a whopping 90 to 95%, and sometimes more of the product consists of the same old petro-chemical based brew of toxic chemicals. This is no ‘leap forward in foam technology’.

It is true that the energy needed to produce soy-based foam is, according to Cargill, who manufactures the soy polyol,  less that that needed to produce the polyurethane foam.  But the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  But hey, that’s still a savings and every little bit helps get us closer to a self sustaining economy and is friendlier to the planet.

But the real problem with advertising soy based foam as a new, miracle green product is that the foam, whether soy based or not, remains a “greenhouse gas spewing pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

My concern with the use of soy is not its carbon footprint but rather the introduction of a whole new universe of concerns such as pesticide use, genetically modifed crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.  Most soy crops are now GMO:  according to the USDA, over 91% of all soy crops in the US are now GMO; in 2007, 58.6% of all soybeans worldwide were GMO.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal, please read our posts on these issues (9.23.09 and 9.29.09).  The debate still rages today.  Greenpeace did an expose (“Eating Up The Amazon”) on what they consider to be a driving force behind Amazon rainforest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.  You can read the Greenpeace report here, and Cargill’s rejoinder here.

In “Killing You Softly“, another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer a ‘soy based’ foam allows these corporations to cloak themselves in a green blanket and masquerade as environmentally responsible corporations when in practice they are not. By highlighting small petroleum savings, they conveniently distract the public from the fact that this product’s manufacture and use continues to threaten human health and poses serious disposal problems. Aside from replacing a small portion of petroleum polyols, the production of polyurethane based foams with soy added continues to rely heavily on ‘the workhorse of the polyurethane foam industry’, cancer causing toluene diisocyanate (TDI). So it remains ‘business as usual ‘ for polyurethane manufacturers.”

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply , soy foam is not biodegradable either. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”. Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade. And so they will languish in our garbage dumps, leach into our water, and find their way into the soft tissue of young children, contaminating and compromising life long after their intended use.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ play book. Like a subliminal message, the polyurethane foam and furniture industries are using the soothing words and images of the environmental movement to distract people from the known negative health and environmental impacts of polyurethane foam manufacture, use and disposal.

Cigarettes that are organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable, and manufactured using renewable tobacco, still cause cancer and countless deaths. Polyurethane foam made with small amounts of soy derived materials still exposes human beings to toxic, carcinogenic materials, still relies on oil production, and still poisons life.

So what’s a poor consumer to do?  We think there is a viable, albeit expensive, product choice: natural latex (rubber). 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 [3]),  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.

Natural latex is breathable, biodegradeable,  healthier (i.e., totally nontoxic, and mold & mildew proof) and lasts longer than polyfoam – some reports say up to 20 times longer.

Is there really a question as to which to buy?


[1] DFE 2008 Office Chair Foam;  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

[2] http://www.foamforyou.com/Foam_Specs.htm

[3] Op cit., http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics





Can you find out what’s in your fabric?

28 03 2013

I was one of those people who thought that manufacturers were not “allowed” to sell me any product that contained something that might harm me. As I quickly learned, that’s basically not true in the United States – especially with respect to fabrics. The EU is light years ahead of the US with their REACH program, designed to replace the most harmful chemicals with less toxic alternatives, but even that program focuses only on only the most high volume chemicals used in industry.
Let me just remind you why knowing what chemicals are used for processing your fabrics is important:
Because fabrics – all fabrics – are by weight about 25% finishing chemicals (i.e. dyes, finishes, softeners, etc.) And because the textile industry uses over 2000 chemicals routinely, how do we know the mix in the fabrics we’re living with are safe?
Well, you can ask the store where you’re buying the sheets or shirts – but they’ll probably look at you blankly.
You can demand information from the manufacturer. But often they don’t know the answers. To illustrate why this is, let’s take one example. Let’s pretend we’re a mill and we have just woven an organic cotton fabric, and we want to dye it. We can choose from many dyes, but settle on one called “Matisse Derivan” manufactured by Derivan Fabric Dye. Because dyes are made up of many chemicals, and because they’re proprietary, it’s next to impossible to find out what is in the particular dye you’re buying. So you might think the MSDS sheet would give us the information.
MSDS sheets are sometimes used to substantiate the “safety” of a chemical product by requiring the listing of chemical components by CAS number, which is a unique numeric identifier of a chemical substance which links to a wealth of information about that chemical. But the reality is that many of the chemicals used in industry (textile or otherwise) have never been evaluated for toxicity, and therefore in the toxicity evaluation there is no data to refer to. In addition, proprietary components do not need to be listed. So the sheets have inaccurate or missing information. According to a 2008 study, between 30 – 100% of products analyzed contained chemicals not declared on an MSDS.(1)
The MSDS sheet for Matisse Derivan (click here to see the sheet) for example, lists these substances in the composition of the dye:

SUBSTNACE                                   CAS NUMBER

  • Pigments                                             Various
  • water-based acrylic co-polymer      Proprietary
  • surfactants, dispersants, etc.           Various
  • ammonia                                             1336-21-6
  • water

In looking at an MSDS sheet, you might also find that any hazard classification or risk phase has “not been established” and “the toxicological properties of this product have not been thoroughly investigated”, or the hazard classification might be identified as “non hazardous” according to various codes, such as the TSCA. These codes are woefully inadequate as is now known (click here for more information) so to say that a chemical is non hazardous according to a code that dismisses all chemicals for which there is no data – well, you can see the problem.
There is also a lack of enforceable quality criteria, probably one of the reasons the sheets are of such poor quality.
Because testing has been done to establish wastewater criteria, some studies have shown what types of chemicals are found in textile wastewater from dyes, such as one which found benzidine, vinyl-p-base and 4-aminoazobenzene – all quite toxic.(2)
Once you get the information on the dyestuff used you’re one chemical component down  – and maybe 20 to go, because in most fabrics these functional areas also require chemical treatments:
Textile auxiliaries (such as complexing, wetting, sequestering, dispering agents; emulsifiers), textile chemicals (dyes, dye-protective, fixing, leveling agents; pH regulators, carriers, UV absorbers); finishes (stain, odor, wrinkle resistance).
And finally, even if you were able to find out which particular chemicals are used in a product, it’s possible that you won’t know what you’re looking at. For example, most everyone knows to avoid formaldehyde, but manufactures can legally use over 30 different trade names for formaldehyde, such as:
• Formalin
• Quaternium-15
• Methanal
• Methyl Aldehyde
• Methylene Oxide
• Oxymethylene
• Bfv
• Fannoform
• Formol
• Fyde
• Karsan
• Methaldehyde
• Formalith
• Methylene Glycol
• Ivalon
• Oxomethane

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18651574

(2)  Rehorek, A and Plum, A; Characterization of sulfonated azo dyes and aromatic amines by pyrolysis gas chromatography/mass spectrometry; Analitical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, Aug 2007; 388(8): 1653-62.





What does “mercerized” cotton mean?

5 12 2012

fullsizeMercerization is a process applied to cellulosic  fibers  – typically cotton (or cotton-covered thread with a polyester core)  but hemp and linen can be mercerized also – to increase luster.  It is done after weaving (in the case of fabrics) or spinning (for yarns or threads).  But early on it was found that the process also had secondary benefits:  the mercerized fibers were able to absorb more water, and therefore absorb more dye, making the color of the dyed cloth brighter and deeper.  The difference is dramatic:  mercerization increases the absorption of dyestuffs by as much as 25%.[1]  unmercerized-101mercerized-101Not only is the color brighter, it also gives the cloth a better resistance to multiple washings,  keeping the colors bright and unchanged over time.   In addition to increasing luster and affinity to dyestuffs, the  treatment increases strength, smoothness, resistance to mildew, and also reduces lint.  So higher quality yarns and fabrics,  for example, are always mercerized.

The process goes back to the 1880’s.   John Mercer was granted a British Patent for his discovery that cotton and other fibers changed character when subjected to caustic soda (NaOh, also known as sodium hydroxide or lye), sulfuric acid, and/or other chemicals.   One of the changes was that caustic soda caused the fiber to swell, become round and straighten out.  But so what – these changes didn’t impart any luster to the fibers, so his patent was largely ignored.  Then in 1890 Horace Lowe found that by applying Mercer’s caustic soda process to cotton yarn or fabric under tension, the fabric gained a  high luster  as a result of the light reflection off the smooth, round surface created by the NaOH. It became an overnight success and revolutionized the cotton industry. The rest is history.[2]

Later testing proved that cotton fiber in its roving state (no twist in the yarns) would absorb more NaOH than fiber in a twisted state and as a result would absorb more water or dye.  Since fine, long stapled fiber gives the best absorption with the lowest twist, ( some twist is required for treating under tension to gain luster) it is usually the long fiber types of cotton (Sea Island, Egyptian, Pima) that are selected for yarn to be mercerized.   So mercerized cotton fabric starts with a better quality cotton fiber.

How is it done?

To get the desired luster and tensile strength,  cotton is held under specified tension for about ten minutes with an application of between 21%-23% caustic soda (NaOH) and wetting agents (used to facilitate the transfer of the NaOH into the fibers), at room temperature.  Then the fabric is neutralized in an acid bath.

Luster is a result of light reflection off a surface. The more glass like the surface, the better the luster. Yarn in its spun, treated state still has a very fine covering of tiny fiber ends (fuzz). This fuzz is removed by passing the yarn (or fabric) through a controlled heated atmosphere termed singeing (gas fired in the past, electric more currently) resulting in a cleaner surface.  (Luster is a result of light reflection off a surface. The more glass like the surface, the better the luster.)
You knew I’d have to look at the toxicity profile of sodium hydroxide, which is considered one of the building blocks of chemistry.  It’s a very powerful alkali.   It’s used in industry in a broad range of categories: chemical manufacturing; pulp and paper manufacturing; cleaning products such as drains, pipe lines and oven cleaners ; petroleum and natural gas; cellulose film;  and water treatment as well as textiles. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers sodium hydroxide to be generally safe, and recognizes it as not being found to pose unacceptable dietary risks, though it is generally only used on food contact surfaces rather than in foodstuffs.

The chemical is toxic to wildlife, and the EPA requires that effluent containing NaOH not be discharged into groundwater.  Because sodium hydroxide falls in the group of chemicals (salts) which are by far the most often used in textile processing, the sheer volume of NaOH used by the textile industry is important to recognize.  Usual salt concentrations in cotton mill wastewater can be 2,000 – 3,000 ppm[3], far in excess of Federal guidelines for in-stream salt concentrations of 230 ppm.  So treatment of effluent is very important, as prevention is the only reasonable alternative to solve the environmental problems associated with this hard-to-treat, high volume waste.  I have read that electrochemical cell treatment might be a substitute for using NaOH to mercerize.  This process occurs in a low voltage electrochemical cell that mercerizes, sours, and optionally bleaches without effluents and without the purchase of bulk caustic, neutralizing acids, or bleaches.





Food MythBusters — Do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world?

8 11 2012

Last week we explored the arguments being used against sustainable agricultural practices being able to feel the world – and that only more of the “green revolution” concepts will do.  The biggest players in the food industry—from pesticide pushers to fertilizer makers to food processors and manufacturers—spend billions of dollars every year not selling food, but selling the idea that we need their products to feed the world.  Food MythBusters is dedicated to  leading the fight against the corporate control of our food system and showing a way to a world where we all have just good food – they want to change the common preconceptions we have about food.

Founder Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, educator, and a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund. Named one of TIME magazine’s “Eco” Who’s Who, Anna’s most recent book is Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.

Food MythBusters first film is designed to address the common belief that sustainable agriculture cannot feel the world.





How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: synthetic fibers

3 10 2012

So from last week’s post, you  know that you want a durable, colorfast fabric that will be lovely to look at and wonderful to live with.  What’s the best choice?  I’m so glad you asked.

You have basically two choices in fibers:  natural (cotton, linen, wool, hemp, silk)  or synthetic (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.).  Many fabrics today are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers – it has been said that most sheet sets sold in the U.S. are cotton/poly blends.

Natural fibres breathe, wicking moisture from the skin, providing even warmth and body temperature;  they are renewable, and decay at end of life.  On the other hand, synthetics do not breathe,  trapping body heat and perspiration; they are based on crude oil, definitely a non-renewable resource and they do not decompose at end of life, but rather remain in our landfills, leaching their toxic monomers into our groundwater.  They are, however, cheap and durable.

I like to think that even without the health issues involved I’d choose to live with natural fibers, since they work so well with humans!  The fibers themselves present no health issues and they’re comfortable.  But they simply don’t last as long as synthetics. But I have begun to see the durability of synthetics as their Dorian Grey aspect, in other words they last so long that they’ve become a huge problem.  By not decomposing, they just break into smaller and smaller particles which leach their toxic monomers into our groundwater.

The impact on health (ours the the planet’s) is an issue that’s often overlooked when discussing the merits of natural vs. synthetic.   And it’s a complex issue, so this week we’ll explore synthetic fibers, and next week we’ll look at natural fibers.

The most popular synthetic fiber in use today is polyester.

At this point, I think it would be good to have a basic primer on polyester production, and I’ve unabashedly lifted a great discussion from Marc Pehkonen and Lori Taylor, writing in their website diaperpin.com:

Basic polymer chemistry isn’t too complicated, but for most people the manufacture of the plastics that surround us is a mystery, which no doubt suits the chemical producers very well. A working knowledge of the principles involved here will make us more informed users.

Polyester is only one compound in a class of petroleum-derived substances known as polymers. Thus, polyester (in common with most polymers) begins its life in our time as crude oil. Crude oil is a cocktail of components that can be separated by industrial distillation. Gasoline is one of these components, and the precursors of polymers such as polyethylene are also present.

Polymers are made by chemically reacting a lot of little molecules together to make one long molecule, like a string of beads. The little molecules are called monomers and the long molecules are called polymers.

Like this:

O + O + O + . . . makes OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Depending on which polymer is required, different monomers are chosen. Ethylene, the monomer for polyethylene, is obtained directly from the distillation of crude oil; other monomers have to be synthesized from more complex petroleum derivatives, and the path to these monomers can be several steps long. The path for polyester, which is made by reacting ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, is shown below. Key properties of the intermediate materials are also shown.

The polymers themselves are theoretically quite unreactive and therefore not particularly harmful, but this is most certainly not true of the monomers. Chemical companies usually make a big deal of how stable and unreactive the polymers are, but that’s not what we should be interested in. We need to ask, what about the monomers? How unreactive are they?

We need to ask these questions because a small proportion of the monomer will never be converted into polymer. It just gets trapped in between the polymer chains, like peas in spaghetti. Over time this unreacted monomer can escape, either by off-gassing into the atmosphere if the initial monomers were volatile, or by dissolving into water if the monomers were soluble. Because these monomers are so toxic, it takes very small quantities to be harmful to humans, so it is important to know about the monomers before you put the polymers next to your skin or in your home. Since your skin is usually moist, any water-borne monomers will find an easy route into your body.

Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals shown in the flowchart above. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without.

What does all of that mean in terms of our health?  Just by looking at one type of cancer, we can see how our lives are being changed by plastic use:

  • The connection between plastic and breast cancer was first discovered in 1987 at Tufts Medical School in Boston by research scientists Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein. In the midst of their experiments on cancer cell growth, endocrine-disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes into the researcher’s laboratory experiment, causing a rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. Their findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1991)[1].
  • Spanish researchers, Fatima and Nicolas Olea, tested metal food cans that were lined with plastic. The cans were also found to be leaching hormone disrupting chemicals in 50% of the cans tested. The levels of contamination were twenty-seven times more than the amount a Stanford team reported was enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate. Reportedly, 85% of the food cans in the United States are lined with plastic. The Oleas reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives (1995).[2]
  • Commentary published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2010 suggested that PET might yield endocrine disruptors under conditions of common use and recommended research on this topic. [3]

These studies support claims that plastics are simply not good for us – prior to 1940, breast cancer was relatively rare; today it affects 1 in 11 women.  We’re not saying that plastics alone are responsible for this increase, but to think that they don’t contribute to it is, we think, willful denial.  After all, gravity existed before Newton’s father planted the apple tree and the world was just as round before Columbus was born.

Polyester fabric is soft, smooth, supple – yet still a plastic.  It contributes to our body burden in ways that we are just beginning to understand.  And because polyester is highly flammable, it is often treated with a flame retardant, increasing the toxic load.  So if you think that you’ve lived this long being exposed to these chemicals and haven’t had a problem, remember that the human body can only withstand so much toxic load – and that the endocrine disrupting chemicals which don’t seem to bother you may be affecting generations to come.

And then there is acrylic.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(4)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [5], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. The data included women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics – those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.

[1] http://www.bu-eh.org/uploads/Main/Soto%20EDs%20as%20Carcinogens.pdf

[2] http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.95103608

[3] Sax, Leonard, “Polyethylene Terephthalate may Yield Endocrine Disruptors”,
Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2010, 118 (4): 445-448

(4) ) http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html

(5) Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321