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!”

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Fire retardants and mistrust of scientific data

8 08 2012

You may have read the series published by the Chicago Tribune which began on May 7, “Playing With Fire”, in which they expose the history of fire retardants which are used in furniture in the United States. The Tribune found that:

  • Chemicals that are used in household furnishings such as sofas and chairs to slow fire do not work.
  • Some fire retardant materials used over the years pose serious health risks. They have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. A lot of household furniture is chock full of these chemicals. They escape from the furniture and settle in dust. That’s particularly dangerous for toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths.

According to an editorial which was published in the Tribune on May 11, “you have been sold a false sense of security about the risk of your furniture burning, and you’ve been exposed to dangerous chemicals you didn’t know about. If you’re not angry, you ought to be”.

How were U.S. consumers and manufacturers sold on the safety and effectiveness of flame retardant chemicals?

According to the series:

  • It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry[1].  A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.  The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals  and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.  An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”  But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.
  • A prominent burn doctor’s misleading testimony was part of a campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals. The chemical industry “has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact,” the authors wrote.  To read about this, click here.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, has allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without rigorously evaluating the health risks

As Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, said: It’s not easy for a democracy to regulate technical products like endocrine disruptors that may offer great benefits as well as complex risks, especially when the hazards remain uncertain. A generation ago, Big Tobacco played the system like a violin, and now Big Chem is doing the same thing.  To read his editorial, click here.

What I find intriguing about this expose is how the chemical lobby was able to pull this off.  We have known the science behind fire retardants for many years, just as we know the science behind global climate change.  The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication , in conjunction with the Gallup Group, found that although most Americans (66%) now believe  climate change is happening,  only 42% believe that it is caused by human activities.[2]  Will scholars a thousand years from now wonder why, after scientists had so thoroughly nailed down the reality of climate change, did so many Americans get fooled into thinking it was all a left-wing hoax?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have published a book, Merchants of Doubt, that explores what they say is the widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific consensus by the American public.[3]  They probe the history of organized campaigns, (similar to the one done by the three fire retardant manufacturers in the Playing with Fire series), to create public doubt and confusion about science.

In a review of the book which appeared in American Scientist, Robert Proctor says that the authors demonstrate “how a small band of right-wing scholars steeped in Cold War myopia, with substantial financing from powerful corporate polluters, managed to mislead large sections of the American public into thinking that the evidence for human-caused warming was uncertain, unsound, politically tainted and unfit to serve as the basis for any kind of political action.”

The story, he says, helps explain why  “these free-market fundamentalists, steeped in Cold War oppositions (market economies versus command economies, the individual versus the state, the free world versus Big Brother), attacked any and all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals. Chlorinated fluorocarbons were not really eating away at the ozone layer, and the sulfates being belched from coal-fired plants were not causing forest-harming acid rain; even secondhand cigarette smoke was not causing any provable harm. This tobacco connection is significant. Oreskes and Conway show that a number of other climate-change denialists served as advisors to the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a Philip Morris front run by APCO Associates to challenge the evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease”.  Rachael Carson is now, in this revisionist world,  blamed for deaths from the banning of DDT.

But what is at the bottom of all this is the definition of the proper role of government in limiting the right to pollute.  Robert Proctor says the doubt mongers  “are not so much antiscience as antigovernment and pro–unfettered business. Ever since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, libertarian ideologues have managed to convince large numbers of Americans that government is inherently bad—worse even than carcinogens in your food or poisons in your water. So for followers of this line of thinking—expressed in some recent Tea Party activities but more potently in many of the trade associations and “think tanks” established by major polluters—the view seems to be that if science gets in your way, you can always make up some of your own. The foolishness of such myopia is now evident in the oil spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico—vivid proof that, as Isaiah Berlin once observed, liberty for wolves can mean death to lambs.”


[2] “Climate Change in the American Mind”, May 15, 2012, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway,   MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,  Bloomsbury Press, 2010.