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Creating a Healthy Haven: Choosing Non-Toxic Furniture for Kids Rooms and Nurseries

Updated: Apr 30

Expecting a new addition to the family can be an exciting time, and setting up the nursery is something most new parents do. But choosing items that go into that small space often doesn't get much more consideration beyond aesthetics or functionality.

Rarely are we thinking "How healthy is this item for my child?"

Transitioning your house into a healthier home involves many factors, and selecting non-toxic furniture is a crucial step, especially when it comes to kids' rooms and nurseries. As a parent striving for a toxin-free environment, one of my top priorities is finding non-toxic furniture, and like many, I also believe in maximising the lifespan of my possessions and replacing them with toxin-free alternatives only when necessary. This makes it an easier-to-digest, step-by-step process, and when the time comes to invest in new furniture, a conscious decision can be made.

What Makes Furniture Toxic?

Understanding the components of furniture, like a crib or rocker; helps identify potential toxins and make informed choices. Here are some key factors to consider:

  1. Fabrics: The upholstery on couches often consists of synthetic materials designed to resist wear, stains, and moisture. Many textile stain repellent finishes rely on chemistry containing formaldehyde and Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), which degrade into Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) in both the environment and the body. PFCs are extremely persistent synthetic chemicals that do not decompose naturally (1). PFOAs, (also found in Teflon), are carcinogenic and linked to increased diabetes risk, suppressed immune function, and liver toxicity (2). Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that causes respiratory irritation and is embedded into the fabric (3).

  2. Foam: Synthetic foam poses one of the greatest concerns in furniture, especially in mattresses and sofas. Despite its seemingly innocuous appearance, foam is often a synthetic, man-made material coated with flame retardants (4). These chemicals disrupt natural hormone production, suppress the immune system, cause endocrine disruption and reproductive issues, can cause cancer, have adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurobehavioral function; and can lead to developmental delays and reduced neurological function (5, 6). Additionally, synthetic foams commonly contain polyurethane, derived from petroleum. This material emits VOCs into indoor air (7), is known to cause respiratory problems, skin damage, and is a suspected carcinogen (8).

  3. Solid Wood:  Opting for solid wood is the best choice, therefore avoiding man-made alternatives like particle board, medium-density fibreboard (MDF), or plywood. These engineered woods often contain formaldehyde in the adhesives binding the wood particles, posing health risks. Formaldehyde is known to be carcinogenic, leading to long-term health issues and short-term effects like headaches and sleep disturbances (9).

  4. Adhesives: Adhesives play a crucial role in furniture construction, even in pieces made of solid wood. They are often used to secure components together, even if screws are used. However, the concern lies in the formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present. Phthalates are common in adhesives and can contribute to kidney damage, allergies, asthma, and birth defects; especially in children (10). Benzene, another toxin found in many glues, has been linked to various types of cancers and neurological issues (11).

How can it harm us and our children?

The reason I am so passionate about nurseries and children's rooms, is infants and kids have a higher chance of health effects from VOCs and toxins than adults (12). That is due to a variety of reasons, but mainly due to their smaller size and developing bodies mean exposures can have outsized effects compared to adults (12). Their proximity to the contaminants due to playing and crawling on the ground where dust accumulates means they inadvertently expose themselves to these harmful substances more frequently, and finally, their tendency to engage in hand-to-mouth behaviours increases the likelihood of ingesting fibres and dust-laden with toxins (13).

These are the ways the toxins from furniture can enter our bodies:

1. Inhalation: VOCs and toxins released from furniture materials can be inhaled when we breathe, especially in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. These chemicals can irritate the respiratory system, leading to symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath (14). Prolonged exposure to VOCs may also contribute to respiratory diseases and exacerbate existing conditions such as asthma (15).

2. Skin Absorption: Our skin can absorb VOCs and toxins when it comes into direct contact with furniture surfaces. This absorption can occur gradually over time, particularly when sitting or lying on upholstered furniture. Once absorbed, these chemicals can enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body, potentially causing systemic effects.

3. Ingestion: Dust particles containing VOCs and toxins can settle on furniture and floors and be ingested inadvertently. Children, in particular, are at risk due to their hand-to-mouth behaviour and close contact with contaminated surfaces. Ingestion of these particles can lead to gastrointestinal irritation and may contribute to long-term health issues (16).

What to look for in furniture

Finding non-toxic furniture doesn't have to be daunting, if you look at the 'ingredients' and materials of each item you are considering, you can make a pretty informed decision relatively easily, just follow these guidelines:

  • Solid hardwood frames

  • Natural oil or water-based finishes

  • Water-based paints (especially on cribs and cots!)

  • VOC-free adhesives and finishes

  • Formaldehyde-Free

  • Flame Retardant-Free

  • Natural latex foam

  • Natural fabrics like linen, wool and cotton

  • Untreated, undyed upholstery

  • GOTS Certified organic fabrics

  • GOLS Certified organic latex foam

  • Sturdy construction

  • Sustainably and ethically sourced and manufactured

Not in the market for a new crib or sofa but want to know how you can improve the health of your indoor environment?

  • Clean regularly with a microfibre cloth and bagged HEPA vacuum to remove dust and particles.

  • Use a True HEPA air filtration unit (especially in a nursery / room with little ventilation) to promote air circulation

  • Open windows

  • Cover non organic / toxic mattresses with an organic cover.

  • Use natural cleaning products to minimise indoor air pollution.

  • Maintain indoor humidity levels between 30-50% to prevent mould and mildew growth (which causes poor indoor air quality)

  • Reduce clutter to minimise areas where dust and allergens can accumulate.

  • Maintain HVAC systems, repair leaks promptly, and address any issues that could contribute to indoor air quality problems.

  • Be mindful of products containing VOCs and minimise their use.

Overall, the presence of VOCs and toxins in furniture underscores the importance of choosing low-emission and non-toxic materials to reduce exposure and safeguard health, especially in environments like children's rooms and nurseries where vulnerable individuals spend significant amounts of time.

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