WKYT Investigates: Is your couch toxic?

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - You're probably sitting on one right now - a couch made mostly of urethane and coated in flame retardants. Both make up a cluster of compounds in the foam in most modern furniture.

In certain amounts, it can pose serious problems. Elizabeth Crowe found out firsthand when she had her new couch tested.

"It's actually one of the only pieces of furniture that I've ever bought new in my life," explained Crowe.

The foam in her couch was made up mostly of urethane. Crow - out of curiosity from her work with the Kentucky Environmental Foundation - had a sample of the foam tested at an out-of-state lab. What scientists found wasn't expected. Chlorinated tris, a flame retardant the Environmental Protection Agency describes as a probable producer of cancer, came up in testing.

"Hazardous flame retardants are really everywhere in our homes," said Crowe.

"The flame retardants, they tend to be smaller molecules. Which means they're more easily able to get into the blood. You can more easily inhale them. And that's where really the danger lies," explained the John C. Hubbard Professor of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky, Dr. John Anthony, "sometimes those flame retardants can themselves pose some health risks. But it's an issue of weighing the issue of setting a house on fire versus the potential health risk from the flame retardant additive."

Flame retardants may keep a fire from spreading sooner, but Lexington Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Nantz says the smoke they put out from flame retardant furniture isn't any easier to fight.

"We don't notice a difference. Once it's on fire it's on fire," noted Chief Nantz, "the plastics and the foam and everything that makes up modern day furniture puts off such an acrid smoke and such a black sooty type smoke that you can't really tell exactly what is burning."

Crowe isn't pleased with the findings, but she's still keeping her couch.

"We can't shop our way out of this problem," she says, "what we do is try to vacuum it off, try to keep the dust content to a minimum as best as we can."

Getting couches tested to find out what's in the foam isn't easy because lab testing isn't widely available for families. You can check the label on furniture, and that will often show the percentage of urethane, if any, inside the foam.

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