Cushioning

5. The cushions are made of certified natural latex, from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis, a renewable resource. Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant – as compared to polyfoam, a toxic witch’s brew.

Polyurethane foam – often known as polyfoam – is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
    • Both methyloxirane and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California.
    • Both are on the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors. However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.1 There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure.2 Isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the breakdown of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”3

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

The average polyurethane foam mattess loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. “Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.” 4

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing). Post-consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it mostly ends up at the landfill. This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs: besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture. This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam can release a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide. Of these chemicals, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide are considered lethal. When breathed in, it deprives the body of oxygen, resulting in dizziness, headaches, weakness of the limbs, tightness in the chest, mental dullness, and finally a lapse of consciousness that leads to death. Many of these are considered potential carcinogens or have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.

The benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighted by the disadvantages: being made from a non-renewable resource (oil), and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam.

Now we see ads for a new miracle product: a bio based foam made from soybeans, which is highly touted as a leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options, as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum.

To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  1. it’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource
  2. it reduces our dependence on fossil fuels by both reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for the feedstock and by reducing the energy requirements needed to produce the foam.

Are these viable claims?

It’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource: This product, marketed as soy or bio-based, contains very little soy. In fact, it is more accurate to call it ‘polyurethane based foam with a touch of soy added for marketing purposes’. Although the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ can theoretically be as much as 40% of the formulation (although such foams have never been able to perform to standards), the usual percentage is, at most, 20%. For example, a product marketed as “20% soy based” may sound impressive, but what this typically means is that only 20% of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘based’ on soy.

It reduces our dependence on fossil fuels:: As described above, the use of soy polyols for 20% of the polyol portion (or 10% of the total) does reduce the amount of fossil fuel needed for feedstock by that amount. And for energy needed to produce the foam: According to Cargill, a manufacturer of these soy polyols , soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols 5 – so 23% less energy was used to produce 10% of the product. This is still a savings in energy, but hardly a substantial reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels.

But the real problem with advertising soy based foam as a new, miracle green product is that the foam, whether soy based or not, remains primarily a petroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals.

Another concern with the use of soy is not its carbon footprint but rather the introduction of a whole new universe of concerns such as pesticide use, genetically modified crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply, soy foam is not biodegradable. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”. Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ play book. Cigarettes that are organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable and manufactured using renewable tobacco, still cause cancer and countless deaths. Polyurethane foam made with small amounts of soy derived materials still exposes human beings to toxic, carcinogenic materials, still relies on oil production, and still poisons life.

Natural or Synthetic latex: The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (derived from the rubber plant) or 100% manmade
(derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two.

  • Natural, rubber-derived latex – The raw material for natural latex comes from a renewable resource, the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning. Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia, through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural latex; although at the current cost of mono-culture. Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant. It is also antifungal, hypo-allergenic and incredibly resilient. It is not highly flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test. There is little or no off-gassing associated with it. Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foam), and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as “latex” or even “100% natural latex”. But the term “synthetic” says it all – it’s synthetic. It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR). The chemical styrene is toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain. Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization. Synthetic latex is often made of combinations of polyurethane and natural, rubber-derived latex, or a combination is SBR and natural, rubber-derived latex. Most stores sell any and all of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor! Being petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable.

1 http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/area/fr16jy07.pdf

2 http://epi.publichealth.nc.gov/oee/tdi/tdi_protocol.pdf

3 From “Killing you Softly” by Len Laycock, CEO of Upholstery Arts, which has sadly gone out of business.

4 Sovn blog (http://sovn.com/blog/natural-latex-vs-synthetic-polyurethane-whats-thedifference)