Three rules for vintage shopping - the couch edition

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Following up on the request for a vintage shopping guide, here's the first installation. Here, we'll cover vintage searches for anything cushioned - couches, poufs, pillows, chairs, etc.

When folks go to shop for vintage or used furniture, they often think this is a great way to be environmentally friendly. And, vintage shopping does mean you're helping avoid filling a landfill with the waste by-products of creating new goods. Re-use rather than generation.

And, often, when I talk to people about chemical fire retardants in cushioned furniture, they respond saying, oh, so maybe I should get used furniture then. The assumption is that the older furniture is going to not have these chemicals. Sadly, the true story is much more complicated. 

But, the story isn't so simple. The health impacts of these used products may not be worth it. Here are the three things to look for when you're shopping.

1. Furniture made before 1975. 

This antique furniture dates from before the major California legislation in 1975 - Technical Bulletin 117 - that led to the proliferation of chemical fire retardants  (CFRs) in furniture. The legislation was passed with the best of intentions. According to an Atlantic article on this topic, at that time, 12,000 Americans were dying each year from household fires. Requiring furniture to  withstand 12 seconds of open flame was intended to spur safer homes. However, it led to widespread use of chemicals that it was later discovered were extremely harmful. Furniture from before 1975 is less likely to have CFRs.

Yeah, but seriously, how would I know how old the item is? Here's a super cool guide from the DIY network to help you establish the age of vintage goods

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1. Furniture made before 1975

2. A label tells you what’s going on

3. Modern furniture, made before 2005

2. A label tells you what's going on. You're looking for several things on a label. For starters, if the label says the item contains polyurethane foam, you're looking at furniture that very likely has CFRs. And if the label says that it complies with TB-117, you're looking at furniture that very likely has CFRs. If, on the other hand, the furniture is not made from polyurethane foam, you are likely to have an item that is CFR-free.

3. Modern furniture, made before 2005. If you are poking around garage sales in your vintage hunting, you are likely looking at furniture from after 1975, so, what then? Well, after seeing if you can find a label, your best bet is seeing if it is made before 2005. In studies of chemical fire retardants, furniture from before 2005 is more likely to be free of chemical fire retardants, with 24% of tested furniture found to have no chemical fire retardants. In addition, from 2005 to 2010, 93% of tested furniture had higher levels of chemicals than those pre-2005. 

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Not a safe bet, though. However, pre-2005 furniture is more likely to have PBDEs that were phased out in the US and Europe for their harmful effects. Also, the half-lives for some of these chemicals is as long as 5-7 years, so I want to be clear this still isn't a safe bet. As much as I'm loath to say it, your ideal option for avoiding these chemicals is still going to be purchasing new, from companies that aren't using these chemicals at all. 



1. Stapleton, Sharma, et al. Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out. Environmental Science and Technology.

2. Center for Environmental Health.

3. The Atlantic. How to test a couch for toxins.

4. DIY Network. What to look for when buying old furniture.