CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Cleveland 19 is investigating a hidden danger in your house.
Imagine buying a new furniture set and noticing a strong, chemical odor in your house days, even months later.
For some people, headaches, asthma, allergies and even serious diseases like cancer may follow.
It's called furniture off-gassing. Furniture can release toxic chemicals into the air we breathe.
A personal connection
Our search for answers started in my baby’s nursery. When you’re a new parent, you can’t wait to decorate and buy new furniture.
We assembled our crib and matching dresser just a month before our baby showed up a few weeks early.
Several months went by, and we had no problems.
But then we noticed there was a strong odor in our nursery. Sometimes it smelled like plastic, other times it was like a dead animal.
We couldn't figure out what it was. So we got it checked out and it wasn't rodents, it wasn't mold or anything like that.
Finally the last expert who stopped by suggested it may be furniture off-gassing.
For months, we went through the process of elimination to see if that was the case, and we found it was.
We were so worried about our baby's safety, we had to figure out, what do we do now?
We tried to air out the furniture in our garage and outside for several months and when that didn't work we got rid of it.
We decided to buy a new crib and dresser, this time GreenGuard certified, meaning it has to meet certain VOC standards.
I spoke to other people who had never heard of furniture off-gassing, so I thought this is an important story to tell.
Learning more about furniture off-gassing
I found out I wasn’t the only one with this problem. I combed through dozens of complaints on saferproducts.gov
We found people describing problems from their furniture, saying an “overwhelming odor has caused her to feel dizzy” or listing symptoms like eye irritation, throat burning and difficulty breathing.
These symptoms were all described as coming from a bedroom set, a mattress and a desk.
Lauren Egger of Avon runs a blog called Healthy Mom Project.
“I think that was a tipping point. We had already looked into the food, vaccines, air, we had our whole house water filter. And then my husband puts on a documentary like five years ago on furniture and I just sat there, like are you serious?” she said.
A mom of five young children, Lauren eats "green" and uses natural household cleaners.
But when it comes to chemicals in furniture, Lauren had no idea.
“As a mom, do we have time to look into every single thing?” she said.
“It's criminal. Honestly should we have to think about what is in our furniture? No,” she said.
Cleveland19 turned to Kurt Rhoads, an environmental engineer and assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University to learn more about furniture off gassing.
“A lot of the materials we use to coat furniture contain solvents, and also other materials to seal them in. And those constituents can be harmful. One example can be formaldehyde, this is a chemical that’s used in furniture polishes and stains. And it’s a known carcinogen,” Rhoads said.
Rhoads says you should also watch out for benzene and phthalates found in plastics.
“They've been linked to hormonal issues, that can then be linked to things like obesity, cancer, behavioral problems,” he said.
Off-gassing can last long after your furniture loses its new shine.
Heat and humidity can increase off-gassing.
“Especially if you’re in a tight place, like a small room, and you unwrap one of these items and use it in a small area, then you’re being exposed to it all the time just as you breathe,” Rhoads said.
I asked Rhoads how long off-gassing lasts.
“The off-gassing can last for the life of the product, but the rate of off-gassing will decrease. It will also depend on the product. It’s like potpourri or a scented candle. The scent never entirely goes away, but it will eventually dissipate to the point where you do not notice it anymore,” he said.
Lauren's family is moving next year, and since we told her about the effects of off-gassing...
She's considering buying new Amish-made furniture to replace some of what she has now.
“Sometimes I always say, back to our roots. It just seems like everything, we have to go back to the way it once was,” she said.
Buying safe furniture
Ron Mandor knows looks can be deceiving when it comes to furniture.
“All of my tables are solid wood,” he said, knocking on the table.
“There's no veneers, there's no particle board.”
Mandor owns Eastwood Furniture, with several stores across Northeast Ohio.
All of their furniture is manufactured by the Amish in Wayne and Holmes County.
Mandor says furniture manufacturers, many of them overseas, take real wood out to save a buck.
“Those tables are made from—God knows what's in there in terms of the particle board, the veneers, things like that that are inside that,” he said.
But they're still charging you just as much as you might pay for local furniture made from real wood.
“The way they make that is basically sawdust, basically parts of wood that's mixed together with adhesives, and those adhesives contain some of the chemicals that we were talking about. The formaldehyde that is toxic in certain quantities,” Mandor said.
Are there any regulations?
Cleveland19 wanted to know whether the chemicals used in furniture manufacturing are regulated, and it wasn't easy to find the answer.
In 2010, Congress passed the Formaldehyde Emission Standards for Composite Wood Products Act.
In 2012, California put limits on formaldehyde in furniture, enforcing it before the federal government.
It took until 2018 June of this year for the federal act to go into effect, and that means you'll see furniture labeled "compliant" now.
More regulations go into effect in 2019.
Lab testing will keep a check on formaldehyde emissions.
The American Home Furnishings Alliance says the original draft of the EPA rule would have “decimated the residential furniture industry, forcing plant closures and widespread job losses.”
"The industry-wide cost was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, despite clear science showing that the new measures would not provide any increased health benefit to American consumers,” AHFA says on its website.
A spokesperson tells Cleveland19 the furniture industry began complying with formaldehyde emission limits in 2012, according to the California law.
AHFA says new “ultra-low” emitting formaldehyde resins were developed at that time.
We asked Mandoor what you should do if you're buying furniture.
“I would ask questions, I would ask what the content is of the particular piece of furniture that you're buying. In your case a crib, absolutely you should know what's in that and what the dangers are from off-gassing of that material. You have a right to know that,” he said.
If you are having problems with furniture off-gassing, you can file complaints with the furniture company, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
You can read more about the dangers of chemicals like VOCs and other chemicals like benzene on cancer.org.
The Minnesota Department of Health has a comprehensive guide to VOCs in your home and how to reduce your levels.
Flame retardants on furniture are another concern. You can read more about that at the Green Science Policy Institute.
Find out how you can improve your air quality at home here.