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.



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 are endocrine disruptors?

13 04 2011

Many chemicals used in textile processing – and elsewhere in consumer products – have been identified as “endocrine disruptors”.  I never paid too much attention to “endocrine disruptors” because it didn’t sound too dire to me – I preferred to stick to something like “carcinogens” because I knew those caused cancer.   I knew that endocrine disruptors had something to do with hormones, but I didn’t think that interfering with acne or my teenager’s surliness was much of a concern.  Boy was I wrong.

What is an “endocrine disruptor”?

The Environmental Protection Agency defines an endocrine disruptor as an external agent that interferes in some way with the role of natural hormones in the body.  (Hmm.  Still doesn’t sound too bad.)

The endocrine system includes the glands (e.g., thyroid, pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, or testes) and their secretions (i.e., hormones), that are released directly into the body’s circulatory system. The endocrine system controls blood sugar levels, blood pressure, metabolic rates, growth, development, aging, and reproduction.  “Endocrine disruptor” is a much broader concept than the terms reproductive toxin, carcinogen, neurotoxin, or teratogen. Scientists use one or more of these terms to describe the types of effects these chemicals have on us.

How do they work?  This is from The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC):

Humans and wildlife must regulate how their bodies function to remain healthy in an ever-changing environment. They do this through a complicated exchange between their nervous and endocrine systems. The endocrine systems in humans and wildlife are similar in that they are made up of internal glands that manufacture and secrete hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that move internally, start or stop various functions, and are important in determining sleep/wake cycles, stimulating or stopping growth, or regulating blood pressure. Some of the most familiar hormones in humans or wildlife are those that help determine male and female gender, as well as control the onset of puberty, maturation, and reproduction. An endocrine disruptor interferes with, or has adverse effects on, the production, distribution, or function of these same hormones. Clearly, interference with or damage of hormones could have major impacts on the health and reproductive system of humans and wildlife, although not all of the changes would necessarily be detrimental.

But why the fuss over endocrine disruptors and why now?  After all,  scientists had known for over fifty years that DDT can affect the testes and secondary sex characteristics of young roosters[1].

And for almost as long, it has been well known that daughters born to women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, early in their pregnancies had a greatly increased risk of vaginal cancer. [2]

And it has been known for over 25 years that occupational exposures to pesticides could “diminish or destroy the fertility of workers.”[3]

It wasn’t until Theo Colborn, a rancher and mother of four who went back to school at age 51 to get her PhD in zoology, got a job at the Conservation Foundation and began to put the pieces together that the big picture emerged.  Theo’s job was to review other scientists’ data, and she noticed that biologists investigating the effects of presumably carcinogenic chemicals on predators in and around the Great Lakes were reporting odd phenomena:

  • Whole communities of minks were failing to reproduce;
  • startling numbers of herring gulls were being born dead, their eyes missing, their bills misshapen;
  • and the testicles of young male gulls were exhibiting female characteristics.

Colborn correlated this data with the presence in the water of organochlorine compounds such as PCBs, DDT, and dieldrin, some of which have hormone-mimicking effects and build up in fatty tissue. Often, the offspring of creatures exposed to chemicals were worse off than the animals themselves.  Colborn concluded that nearly all the symptoms could be traced to things going awry in the endocrine system.

In 1991, Colborn called together a conference, whose participants included biologists, endocrinologists and toxicologists as well as psychiatrists and lawyers, at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin. They produced what become known as the “Wingspread Statement,” the core document of the endocrine-disruption hypothesis, in which these researchers concluded that observed increases in deformities, evidence of declining human fertility and alleged increases in rates of breast, testicular and prostate cancers, as well as endometriosis  are the result of “a large number of man-made chemicals that have been released into the environment”.[4]

Endocrine disruption—the mimicking or blocking or suppression of hormones by industrial or natural chemicals— appeared to be affecting adult reproductive systems and child development in ways that far surpassed cancer, the outcome most commonly looked for by researchers at the time. Potential problems included infertility, genital abnormalities, asthma, autoimmune dysfunction, even neurological disorders involving attention or cognition. In one early study that Colborn reviewed, for instance, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  commissioned psychologists to study children whose mothers ate fish out of the Great Lakes. The researchers found that the children “were born sooner, weighed less, and had smaller heads” than those whose mothers hadn’t eaten the fish. Moreover, the more  PCBs that were found in the mother’s cord blood, the worse the child did on tests for things such as short-term memory. By age eleven, the most highly exposed kids had an average IQ deficit of 6.2.[5]

The endocrine disruptor hypothesis first came to widespread congressional attention in 1996, with the publication of the book Our Stolen Future – by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers.[6]

In the years since the Wingspread conference, many of its fears and predictions have been fleshed out by new technologies that give a far more precise picture of the exquisite damage that toxins can wreak on the human body – and especially on developing fetuses, which are exquisitely sensitive to both the natural hormone signals used to guide its development, and the unexpected chemical signals that reach it from the environment”[7]

Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This capability means that we are beginning to understand how even tiny doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development.

The endocrine disruption hypothesis has also unleashed a revolution in toxicity theory. The traditional belief that “the dose makes the poison” (the belief that as the dose increases, so does the effect; as the dose decreases, so does its impact)  has proven inadequate in explaining the complex workings of the endocrine system, which involves a myriad of chemical messengers and feedback loops.

Experimental data now  shows conclusively that some endocrine-disrupting contaminants can cause adverse effects at low levels that are different from those caused by high level exposures.  For example, when rats are exposed in the womb to 100 parts per billion of DES, they become scrawny as adults.  Yet exposure of just 1 part per billion causes grotesque obesity.[8] Old school toxicology has always assumed that high dose experiments can be used to predict low-dose results. With ‘dose makes the poison’ thinking, traditional toxicologists didn’t pursue the possibility that there might be effects at levels far beneath those used in standard experiments. No health standards incorporated the possibility.

Jerry Heindel, who heads a branch of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) that funds studies of endocrine disruptors, said that 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”.  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 – as is the case with DES, where exposure during fetal development doesn’t show up until maturity.

And not just the child’s life, but her children’s lives too.  “Inside the fetus are germ cells that are developing that are going to be the sperm and oocytes for the next generation, so you’re actually exposing the mother, the baby, and the baby’s kids, possibly,” says Heindel.[9]

So it’s also the timing that contributes to the poison.

According to Our Stolen Future, “the weight of the evidence says we have a problem. Human impacts beyond isolated cases are already demonstrable. They involve impairments to reproduction, alterations in behavior, diminishment of intellectual capacity, and erosion in the ability to resist disease. The simple truth is that the way we allow chemicals to be used in society today means we are performing a vast experiment, not in the lab, but in the real world, not just on wildlife but on people.”

Now that I know what “endocrine disruptor” means, I’m not dismissing them any more as mere irritants.

[1] Burlington, F. & V.F. Lindeman,  1950. “Effect of DDT on testes and secondary sex

characteristics of white leghorn cockerels”. Proc. Society for Experimental Biology

and Medicine 74: 48–51.

[2] Herbst, A., H. Ulfelder, and D. Poskanzer. “Adenocarcinoma of the vagina: Association of maternal stilbestrol therapy with tumor appearance in young women,” New England Journal of Medicine, v. 284, (1971) p. 878-881.

[3] Moline, J.M., A.L. Golden, N. Bar-Chama, et al. 2000. “Exposure to hazardous substances

and male reproductive health: a research framework”. Environ. Health Perspect.

108: 1–20.

[4] Shulevitz,Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Colborn, Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story. New York: Penguin. (1996) 316 p.

[9] Shulevitz,Judith, op. cit.

Copper and fabric

15 12 2010

Copper is an essential  trace element that is vital to life. The human body normally contains copper at a level of about 1.4 to 2.1 mg for each kg of body weight; and since the body can’t synthesize copper, the human diet must supply regular amounts for absorption.   The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that 10-12 mg/day may be the upper safe limit consumption.

The  fact that copper is essential to life  is well known, but it’s also a toxic metal, and that toxicity, except for the genetic overload diseases, Wilson’s disease and hemochromatosis, is not so well known.    Humans can become copper-toxic or copper-deficient, often because of “copper imbalance” (which can include arthritis, fatigue,  insomnia, migraine headaches, depression, panic attacks, and attention deficit disorder) .

Copper has been used for centuries for disinfection, and has been important around the world in technology, medicine and culture.

Is copper in the environment a health risk?

The answer to this question is complex. Copper is a necessary nutrient and is naturally occurring in the environment in rocks, soil, air, and water. We come into contact with copper from these sources every day but the quantity is usually tiny. Some of that copper, particularly in water, may be absorbed and used by the body. But much of the copper we come into contact with is tightly bound to other compounds rendering it neither useful nor toxic. It is important to remember that the toxicity of a substance is based on how much an organism is exposed to and the duration and route of exposure. Copper is bioaccumulative – there are many studies of copper biosorption by soils, plants and animals.  But copper in the environment, (such as that in agricultural runoff, in air and soil near copper processing facilities such as smelters and at hazardous waste sites) binds easily to compounds in soil and water, reducing its bioavailability to humans.  On the other hand,  many children are born with excessive tissue copper (reason unknown), and one of the ways we are told to balance a copper imbalance is to reduce your exposure to sources of copper!  (see

There are no studies on what this increased copper is doing to the environment.    Copper is listed as an EPA Priority pollutant, a CA Air Toxic contaminant, and an EPA Hazardous air pollutant (see;   it is also a Type II Moderate Hazard by the WHO Acute Hazard Ranking .  There is NO DATA on its carcinogenity,   whether it is a developmental or reproductive toxin or endocrine disruptor or whether it contaminates groundwater.

Today, because of its long use as a disinfectant and because it’s required for good health, many claims are being made about using copper in various products – including fabric.  Copper-impregnated fibers have been introduced, which enables the production of anti-bacterial and self-sterilizing fabrics.  These copper infused fabrics are marketed to be used in hospital settings to reduce infections, as an aid to help those suffering from asthma and allergies provoked by dust mites, and in socks to prevent athlete’s foot.

These copper  impregnated fabrics are said to be safe, pointing to the low sensitivity of human tissue to copper, and because the copper is in a non-soluble form.   Yet, that copper is safe because it is in a non soluble form was disproven by at least one study which tried to determine whether total copper or soluble copper was associated with gastrointestinal symptoms.  It was found that both copper sulfate (a soluable compound) and copper oxide (insoluable) had comparable effects on these symptoms. (

And then there’s this:   “…(copper)  toxicity is so general in the population that it is a looming public health problem in diseases of aging and in the aging process itself.  Diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s disease, other neurodegenerative diseases, arteriosclerosis, diabetes mellitus, and others may all be contributed to by excess copper (and iron). A very disturbing study has found that in the general population those in the highest fifth of copper intake, if they are also eating a relatively high fat diet, lose cognition at over three times the normal rate”.[1]

Sometimes safety is cited because of the widespread use by women of copper intrauterine devices (IUDs).  But the copper IUD was developed only in 1970;  that timeline would put those first users only in their 60s today.  How can we know that the copper has not influenced any health problems these 60 somethings may now have?  In addition, about 12% of women have the copper IUD removed because of increased menstrual bleeding or cramping.[2] There are also cases of increased menstrual cramping, acne, depression and other symptoms attributed to the copper IUD.[3] The fact that we keep ignoring is that the body, like our ecosystem, is a highly complex, interconnected system.  It is extremely hard to single out any one element as contributing to a series of cause and effect.

Although copper does have documented antimicrobial properties, it is a broad spectrum antimicrobial – meaning that it kills the good guys as well as the bad.  Many studies show that this is not necessarily the best approach to infection control.   Kaiser Permanente issued a December 2006 memo with this bottom line: “Review of current scientific literature reveals no evidence that environmental surface finishes or fabrics containing antimicrobials assist in preventing infections.”  In fact, their policy now is to prohibit any fabrics with antimicrobial finishes in their hospitals.

Copper impregnated fabrics are legally sold in the USA, because the EPA has not issued any regulations regarding use.  The reality is they don’t have any data on which to base an exclusion of use.  In the US we must prove toxicity before the EPA even begins to regulate chemicals – look at the case of lead.  Other organizations have evaluated copper (including the EPA, see above).

So really the question is: what possible benefit do you hope to achieve by using a product with this antimicrobial finish?   Although copper isn’t one of the most alarming chemicals used in textile processing,  it seems to me the benefits just aren’t that compelling.    I wouldn’t risk altering my DNA or subjecting myself to copper imbalance symptoms just to eliminate stains or odors.

[1] Brewer, George J., “Risks of Copper and Iron Toxicity during Aging in Humans”, Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2010, 23 (2), pp. 319 – 326.

[2] Zieman M, et al. (2007). Managing Contraception for Your Pocket. Tiger, GA: Bridging the Gap Foundation.