Monday, April 7, 2014

Chemical and fire hazards in furniture

Original at Mommy Greenest.

One of the topics that I give short shrift to in my Environmental Science class is indoor air pollution.  Pity, since that is a major health hazard.  This past week, I included two press releases on how our furniture poses an indoor air pollution risk in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Ocean inside Enceladus) on Daily Kos.  First, the bad news from the University of Texas: Crib Mattresses Emit High Rates of Potentially Harmful Chemicals, Cockrell School Engineers Find.
AUSTIN, Texas — In a first-of-its-kind study, a team of environmental engineers from the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin found that infants are exposed to high levels of chemical emissions from crib mattresses while they sleep.

Analyzing the foam padding in crib mattresses, the team found that the mattresses release significant amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), potentially harmful chemicals also found in household items such as cleaners and scented sprays.

The researchers studied samples of polyurethane foam and polyester foam padding from 20 new and old crib mattresses. Graduate student Brandon Boor, in the Cockrell School’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, conducted the study under the supervision of assistant professor Ying Xu and associate professor Atila Novoselac. Boor also worked with senior researcher Helena Järnström from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. They reported their findings in the February issue of Environmental Science & Technology.
Now, the good news from Rebecca Basu of American University: Chemistry Professors Improve Furniture Smoldering Test.
American University chemistry researchers and scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) discovered a way to improve a test that gauges how well upholstered furniture can resist smoldering combustion to delay the possible onset of fire. The research results are available online in the scientific journal, Polymer Degradation and Stability.

In the United States, fires in which upholstered furniture is the first item ignited account for about 6,700 home fires annually and result in 480 deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association. These fires can be started from an open-flame source, such as a candle, or from a smoldering source, such as a lit cigarette or incense.

In the smoldering test, two foam pieces about two-inches thick are covered with fabric and placed in a wooden frame to replicate a small-scale version of seat and back cushions. It mimics a scenario where furniture foam sits on a non-air-permeable substrate (e.g. the wooden frame). A cigarette (certified to burn consistently) is placed in the frame’s crevice. To pass the test, the lit cigarette should not cause sustained smoldering of the fabric or the underlying foam.
I don't have enough time this semester to include the information in my lectures except in passing because of the snow days, but I'll see what I can do this summer, when I'm not likely to lose four days from the semester because of weather.


  1. This is why babies should sleep with their mothers in a normal bed where they belong. Lower risks of everything- unless you are a serious drug-user or alcohol indulger. In which case, just give your baby to someone responsible who can co-sleep... Chemical crib mattresses... harf...

    1. Based on her stories, my wife would have been OK with that. My ex-wife, on the other hand, would have none of it. There are reasons she's my ex.