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Furniture as a source of air pollutants in our homes

03 February 2021
Article by Gabriela Ventura, researcher at INEGI.

We all believe, emotionally, that our home is the safest place for each of us. But is it so in terms of air quality?

The polluting sources that surround us have lately been widely discussed, with building materials being the most commonly associated with this danger, since they represent a greater emission area. These materials have been subject to regulation in many European countries, although not in Portugal. Candles, incense and aroma diffusers are also beginning to be recognized as harmful, as they are evidently emitters of volatile organic compounds, odorous compounds by nature.

Furniture, however, remains understated, and its effect on indoor air quality is ignored by many.

Studies show, however, that furniture can be a relevant source of formaldehyde and phenol. Furniture that includes wood chipboard panels, in particular, contains bonding resins based on these two compounds. A considerable risk since formaldehyde is a carcinogenic compound, suspected of being mutagenic and skin sensitizing, and phenol is suspected of being mutagenic.

In addition, there are many other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and semi-volatiles (SVOCs) that can be detected in furniture, as all pieces have a finish (paint, varnish or wax) that are also known sources of these compounds.

One can mention, for example, a study carried out in 2019 by Czech researchers, on upholstered furniture, which revealed that the foams used are a source of various aromatic hydrocarbons such as toluene, m/p-xylene and styrene, among others. As early as 2011, South Korean researchers had found high levels of toluene, ethylbenzene, w/w-xylene and styrene on a dining table.

Classification of low emissions for Indoor Air represents safety standards for health

In Portugal, there is no mandatory system that regulates emissions from items of furniture. However, INEGI's Indoor Air Quality Laboratory (LQAI) works with several national manufacturers, who aim to guarantee the well-being of consumers. The tests and exams carried out here allow manufacturers and brands to assert themselves as friendly to the environment and public health, a relevant differentiation factor today.

In Europe, however, the regulation of furniture emissions exists, although it is not widespread. Some of the European labeling systems also apply to furniture, such as the Blue Angel, in Germany, or the Danish Indoor Climate Labeling, among others. At European level, the Ecolabel also has criteria for furniture, but it only regulates formaldehyde in the case of furniture with wooden panels or VOCs in the case of glues.

In the United States there are several systems, ANSI / BIFMA, from the association of American furniture producers, fully applicable to furniture, and also used in GreenGuard certification.

Regulation can indeed prove to be efficient. A 2015 study by North American researchers analyzed certified material that had formaldehyde emissions below the limit of quantification. In the same study, it was observed that some materials present in non-certified furniture continue to emit formaldehyde for 5 months.

How to create a healthier indoor environment

The reality is that Portuguese consumers are not yet aware of this issue, and when they choose items of furniture they do not check whether they are free of formaldehyde or if they have any label that proves low emissions.

This is relevant since, in addition to regulation, pressure from consumers also encourages manufacturers to be careful when choosing the materials they use.

Checking that the product sheet or label contains a symbol representing very low emissions, should become a routine action. Especially when choosing furniture for the most vulnerable populations, such as newborns or children. It is common for parents to want to set up a new room for new family members, but remember that emissions are higher when furniture is new.

There being no possibility to choose a low emission product, however, there are some actions that contribute to mitigate emissions from new furniture. In particular:

- leave the product to air outside the house for a few days, or ask the supplier to deliver the product at home only after it has been aired;

- when placing the product indoors, you should regularly ventilate the room in order to dilute the concentration of pollutants;

- avoid high temperatures without ventilation, as the increase in temperature causes an increase in emissions, in particular formaldehyde.
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