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

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How to buy a “quality” sofa – soy foam

19 09 2012

In my last post I explained that polyurethane foam (polyfoam) has a plethora of problems associated with it:

  • The chemicals used to manufacture the foam have been formally identified as carcinogens; and the flame retardant chemicals added to almost all foams increase the chemical toxicity.  These chemicals evaporate (VOCs)  and pollute our indoor air and dust;
  • It does not decompose in the landfill; the recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous chemicals;
  • It is dependent on a non-renewable resource: crude oil.

When untreated foam (aka, “solid gasoline”)  is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly is the toxic gas produced by burning polyurethane foam – hydrogen cyanide gas.  Hydrogen cyanide itself is so toxic that it was used by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists who attacked Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, and in Nazi death camps during World War II. 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.

Polyfoam is so flammable  – burning  so hot and emitting such toxic fumes while burning –  that even the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) recommends that it be placed in Class 9 (an unusual but clearly hazardous material) because they are concerned about the safety of firemen and other first responders.

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.

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.

But today – not long after jumping on the bandwagon –  we have concerns about polyurethane:  in addition to all the problems mentioned above there is concern about its carbon footprint. So 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,  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   I have again 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. As Len Laycock asks, 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 (theoretical because 40% soy has not resulted in useable foams). 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’ as claimed.

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.

An interesting aside:  There is an article featured on CNNMoney.com about the rise of what they call Soylandia – the enormous swath of soy producing lands in Brazil (almost unknown to Americans) which dominates the global soy trade.  Sure opened my eyes to some associated soy issues.

In “Killing You Softly“, Len Laycock presents another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing:

“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.

While bio-based technologies may offer promise for creating greener, cradle-to-cradle materials, tonight the only people sitting pretty or sleeping well on polyurethane foam that contains soy are the senior executives and shareholders of the companies benefiting from its sale. As for the rest of humankind and all the living things over which we have stewardship, we’ve been soy scammed!”





How to buy a “quality” sofa – part 3 (foam)

4 09 2012

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.

In putting together this information on foams, I  leaned heavily on a series of blog postings by Len Laycock (CEO of Upholstery Arts), called “Killing Me Softly”.   It saddens me to have found out that Upholstery Arts is no longer selling furniture.

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) must be evaluated with 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.   It’s a big topic and one that deserves its own post.   So that’s going to be next week’s post!





How to evaluate a “quality” sofa – part 1

15 08 2012

In light of the recent Chicago Tribune series, “Playing with Fire”  about the deceptive campaigns waged by manufacturers of flame retardants, it seems that with each call we get,  we end up talking about flame retardants.  We think that’s skewed, because flame retardants, though certainly something we wouldn’t want to live with, are not the only monsters in the dark.  So we want to talk again about what makes a “green”,  “safe”, or “sustainable” sofa  – whatever you want to call it – and how to evaluate manufacturers claims.  What we mean is a sofa that does not compromise your health – or mine.   So you can live with a sofa which does not contain chemicals which can harm you, but if a manufacturer does not capture the environmental pollutants created during the process, the end result will be the same – it will just take a bit longer.

So we’re going to do a series of blog posts on the various components of a sofa, so you’ll be better able to evaluate the claims manufacturers are making.

The first order of business is to find out what makes a “quality” sofa.   In looking at what makes a “quality” sofa, I  didn’t pay any attention to the “green” (or not) attributes of each item – we’re simply talking about quality so you’ll be able to evaluate a sofa.  After all, it’s not a “green” option to buy a sofa that you’ll have to replace in two years.  Think about furniture you see in museums that have all their original parts – including fabric – and are often hundreds of years old.  That’s what quality components can do for you.

These are the components of a typical sofa:

  • Wood
  • Foam (most commonly) or other cushion filling
  • Fabric
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Glue
    • Varnish/paint
    • Metal springs
    • Thread
    • Jute webbing
    • Twine

The frame, seating support, cushion filling and decorative fabric all determine your sofa’s level of comfort, and its ability to retain its shape and stability in the years to come.  

How long a sofa will last, and retain its shape,  depends largely on the frame, and a high quality sofa will always have a strong, sturdy one.  A higher quality sofa uses kiln-dried hardwoods  – this process removes all moisture from the frame, enabling it to retain its shape and stability over a long period of time.  Green and/or knotted wood can shrink or crack.   Some better quality sofas use plywood, but if you have to choose a sofa with plywood, make sure it has 11 – 13 layers of plywood and not fewer. Lower quality sofas use particleboard /MDF board.

In a high quality sofa, special attention is paid to the joints, which are dowelled or screwed into place rather than glued.  Some manufacturers even cut costs by using watered down glue.  Joints are secured with corner blocking, dowels and screws, which last longer than just glue and staples.

Regarding seating support:

  • The best seating support is the eight-way hand tied springs system. The craftsman connects each spring to the adjoining one with a strong twine. The twine passes front to back, side to side and then diagonally in both directions thus tying each spring securely.
  • Another seating support system is sinuous spring construction. Sinuous springs are “S” shaped and run from the front of the seat to the back. These springs are supported by additional wires that cross from side to side. This also makes for a strong seat, and it might be the preferred option in a sleeker style as it requires less space.
  • The third option is web suspension in which bands of webbing cross the seat and back. These are then attached to the frame to make a platform for the cushions. Webbing can be made of either natural or man-made fibers, and if used alone doesn’t make for very strong support. However, in better quality sofas, it can be used with a tensioner that fastens the webbing securely to the frame. The web suspension is the least preferable of the seating support options.

Ticking is used between the upholstery foam or latex and the decorative fabric cover; stitches are even and not bunched.

The most common filling used in sofa cushions is high density polyurethane.   Density is measured in pounds per cubic foot (PCF).  And of course there is a lot of variability in density –  it  can run from 1.2 PCF for lowest quality foam, to 1.7 PCF for average quality sofa cushions and up to 2.2 PCF for high quality cushions.   Firmness and resiliency are qualities that make a higher quality foam.  Natural latex is another filling option, and also comes in varying densities.  The lifespan of polyurethane averages 10 years; latex is supposed to have double that life expectancy.  Before there was polyurethane foam, however, people used a variety of materials, such as horsehair and cotton or wool batting.

Fillings can be wrapped in softer material such as wool, cotton or Dacron, which is the cheapest option. Down is considered to be the premium filling choice, and is among the most expensive choices, but cushions filled only with down require daily maintenance. High quality down cushions will have down proof ticking under the upholstery fabric to prevent feathers from poking through.

Down used in combination with other materials is another option, but also expensive. Pads made out of a Dacron® polyester fiber and down, known as Blendown pads, are wrapped around high density foam.  These pads can also be used with springs that have been wrapped up in foam. High density foam surround the springs that are then wrapped in down pads. The result is a soft surface with a strong, resilient support inside. This is a good option as the cushions do not lose their shape easily.





Is it sustainable just because we’re told it is?

22 09 2010

I just tried to find out more about Project UDesign,   a competition sponsored by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Cargill, Toray Industries and Century Furniture.  The goal is to produce a chair that is both “sustainable and sellable.”  It is targeted to be the next “ eco friendly wing chair” on the market, with the goal of educating the industry and consumers on the topic of sustainable furniture design.[1] Century Furniture has pledged to put the winning chair into production.

Since criteria for the chair design is limited to the use of Cargill’s BiOH® polyols soy foam and Toray’s EcoDesign™ Ultrasuede® upholstery fabric we would like to help Project UDesign reach their goal of educating us on sustainable furniture design by explaining why we think these two products cannot be considered a sustainable choice .  In fact, by sponsoring this competition and limiting the student’s choices to Cargill’s BiOH® polyols (“soy”)  foams and Toray’s EcoDesign™ Ultrasuede® fabrics, it sends absolutely the wrong message to the students and the public about what constitutes an “eco friendly” choice.

So, let’s take a look at these two products to find out why I’m in such a dither:

Beginning with soy foam:   the claim that soy foam is a green product is based on two claims:

  1. that it’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource
  2. that 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 soy accounts for  only 10% of the foam’s total volume. Why?  Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in 40/60 ratios (40% is the high end for BiOH® polyols used, it can be as low as 5%), “20% soy based” translates to 20% of the polyol portion, or 20% of the 40% of polyols used to make the foam. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam  ‘based’ on fossil fuels, 10% ‘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: 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’.  In the graphic below, “B-Component” represents the polyol portion of polyurethane, and the “A-Component” represents the isocyanate portion of the polyurethane:

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 because the soy based polyols represent only about 10% of the final foam product, the true energy reduction is only about 4.6% rather than 23%, which is what Cargill leads you to believe in their LCA, which can be read here.   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, so this couldn’t be what is fueling my outrage.

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 petroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock of Upholstery Arts.

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 (GMO), 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 rain forest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.  You can read the Greenpeace report here, and Cargill’s rejoinder here.

An interesting aside:  There is an article featured on CNNMoney.com about the rise of what they call Soylandia – the enormous swath of soy producing lands in Brazil (almost unknown to Americans) which dominates the global soy trade.  Sure opened my eyes to some associated soy issues.

In “Killing You Softly” (a white paper by Upholstery Arts),  another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer ‘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”.[2] 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.

As Len Laycock says, “While bio-based technologies may offer promise for creating greener, cradle-to-cradle materials, tonight the only people sitting pretty or sleeping well on polyurethane foam that contains soy are the senior executives and shareholders of the companies benefiting from its sale.  As for the rest of humankind and all the living things over which we have stewardship, we’ve been soy scammed!”

If you’re still with us, lets turn our attention to Toray’s Ultrasuede, and their green claims.

Toray’s green claim for Ultrasuede is that it is based on new and innovative recycling technology, using their postindustrial polyester scraps, which cuts both energy consumption and CO2 emissions by an average of 80% over the creation of virgin polyesters.

If that is the only advance in terms of environmental stewardship, it falls far short of being considered an enlightened choice, as I’ll list below.

If we  look at the two claims made by the company:

  1. Re: energy reduction:  If we take Toray’s claim that it takes just 25 MJ of energy[3] to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede – that’s still far more energy than is needed to produce 1 KG of organic hemp or linen (10 MJ), or cotton (12 MJ) – with none of the benefits provided by organic agriculture.
  2. CO2 emissions are just one of the emissions issues – in addition to CO2, polyester production generates particulates, N2O, hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide, acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane (also potentially carcinogenic).

But in addition to these claims, the manufacture of this product creates many concerns which the company does not address, such as:

  1. Polyurethane, a component of Ultrasuede®, is the most toxic plastic known next to PVC; its manufacture creates numerous hazardous by-products, including phosgene (used as a lethal gas during WWII), isosyanates (known carcinogens), toluene (teratogenic and embryotoxic) and ozone depleting gases methylene chloride and CFC’s.
  2. Most polyester is produced using antimony as a catalyst.  Antimony is a carcinogen, and toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.  Long term inhalation causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.  So, recycled  – or not –  the antimony is still present.
  3. Ethylene glycol (EG) is a raw material used in the production of polyester.  In the United States alone, an estimated 1 billion lbs. of spent ethylene glycol is generated each year.  The EG distillation process creates 40 million pounds of still bottom sludge. When incinerated, the sludge produces 800,000 lbs of fly ash containing antimony, arsenic and other metals.[4] What does Toray do with its EG sludge?
  4. The major water-borne emissions from polyester production include dissolved solids, acids, iron and ammonia.  Does Toray treat its water before release?
  5. And remember, Ultrasuede®  is still  . . .plastic.  Burgeoning evidence about the disastrous consequences of using plastic in our environment continues to mount.  A new compilation of peer reviewed articles, representing over 60 scientists from around the world, aims to assess the impact of plastics on the environment and human health [5]and they found:
    1. Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies.   Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
    2. Synthetics do not decompose:  in landfills they release heavy metals, including antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater.  If they are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.
  6. Nor does it take into consideration our alternative choices:  that using an organic fiber supports organic agriculture, which may be one of our most underestimated tools in the fight against climate change, because it:
      1. Acts as a carbon sink:   new research has shown that what is IN the soil itself (microbes and other soil organisms in healthy soil) is more important in sequestering carbon that what grows ON the soil.  And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  demonstrates that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [6]
      2. eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
      3. conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
      4. ensures sustained biodiversity

Claiming that the reclamation and use of their own internally generated scrap is an action to be applauded may be a bit disingenuous.   It is simply the company doing what most companies should do as efficient operations:  cut costs by re-using their own scrap. They are creating a market for their otherwise unsaleable scrap polyester from other operations such as the production of polyester film.  This is a good step by Toray, but to anoint it as the most sustainable choice or even as a true sustainable choice at all is disingenuous. Indeed we have pointed in prior blog posts that there are many who see giving “recycled polyester” a veneer of environmentalism by calling it a green option is one of the reasons plastic use has soared:  plastic use has increased by a factor of 30 since the 1960s while recycling plastic has only increased by a factor of 2. [7]

We cannot condone the use of this synthetic, made from an inherently non-renewable resource, as a green choice for the many reasons given above.

[1] Cargill press release, July 20, 2010  http://www.cargill.com/news-center/news-releases/2010/NA3031350.jsp

[2] http://www.bioh.com/bioh_faqs.html

[3] If we take the average energy needed to produce 1 KG of virgin polyester, 125 MJ (data from “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Enviornemnt Institute) , and reduce it by 80% (Toray’s claim), that means it takes 25 MJ to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede®

[4] Sustainable Textile Development at Victor,  http://www.victor-innovatex.com/doc/sustainability.pdf

[5] “Plastics, the environment and human health”, Thompson, et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, July 27, 2009

[6] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf

[7] http://www.edf.org/documents/1889_SomethingtoHide.pdf and http://discovermagazine.com/2009/oct/21-numbers-plastics-manufacturing-recycling-death-landfill





Does “soy based foam” deliver on its promise?

27 01 2010

In last week’s post I explained that polyurethane foam (polyfoam) has a plethora of problems associated with it:

  • The chemicals used to manufacture the foam have been formally identified as carcinogens; and the flame retardant chemicals added to almost all foams increase the chemical toxicity.  These chemicals evaporate (VOCs)  and pollute our indoor air and dust;
  • It does not decompose in the landfill; the recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous chemicals;
  • It is dependent on a non-renewable resource: crude oil.

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 is the toxic gas produced by burning polyurethane foam – hydrogen cyanide gas.  Hydrogen cyanide itself is so toxic that it was used by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists who attacked Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, and in Nazi death camps during World War II. 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.

Polyfoam is so flammable (called “solid gasoline” by fire experts) – burning  so hot and emitting such toxic fumes while burning –  that even the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) recommends that it be placed within Class 9 (an unusual but clearly hazardous material) because they are concerned about the safety of firemen and other first responders.

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.

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.

But today – not long after jumping on the bandwagon –  we have concerns about polyurethane:  in addition to all the problems mentioned above there is concern about its carbon footprint.  So 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,  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   I have again 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.

An interesting aside:  There is an article featured on CNNMoney.com about the rise of what they call Soylandia – the enormous swath of soy producing lands in Brazil (almost unknown to Americans) which dominates the global soy trade.  Sure opened my eyes to some associated soy issues.

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.

While bio-based technologies may offer promise for creating greener, cradle-to-cradle materials, tonight the only people sitting pretty or sleeping well on polyurethane foam that contains soy are the senior executives and shareholders of the companies benefiting from its sale. As for the rest of humankind and all the living things over which we have stewardship, we’ve been soy scammed!”





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;  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

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