Office Furniture

Why It Matters

Office furniture is an unexpected reservoir for many hazardous and often unnecessary chemicals and can pose a significant health risk to America’s workers. These include toxic flame retardant chemicals (CEH legislation will go into effect in 2020 banning their use), volatile organic compounds (including formaldehyde), fluorinated stain treatment chemicals, antimicrobials and toxic materials like polyvinyl chloride (vinyl). CEH refers to this group as the “Hazardous Handful”.

These chemicals escape from furniture and make their way into our air, dust, and our bodies. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, obesity, neurodevelopmental and reproductive problems, as well as a variety of other health problems. Given the longevity of furniture products and the fact that we spend 90% of our time indoors, your organization’s purchasing decisions are an often-overlooked opportunity to promote a safe and healthy workforce and environment.

What We’re Doing

CEH has been a leader in the national effort to eliminate health threats posed by toxic chemicals in office furniture for almost a decade. In 2014, CEH worked to influence major companies in changing the way they buy furniture. By signing a Purchaser Pledge and communicating with their suppliers, companies can protect their employees, customers and the community from harmful chemicals. Our goal was to take the buying power of companies that collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on new office furniture and use it to influence companies that make and supply furniture.

The companies that have signed the CEH Purchaser’s Pledge collectively or adopted CEH ’s restrictions spend more than $280 million annually on furniture, which can now be directed to healthier products. Signers of the pledge include Kaiser Permanente, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Genentech, Harvard, Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA, the City and County of San Francisco and the City of Portland, and many others.

CEH published a guide to help businesses avoid toxic furniture. The guide makes the case for this work and includes our easy to use set of tools and resources. CEH can also provide purchasers with technical assistance to help them implement the needed steps.

Our legislative, legal, and marketplace efforts helped tip the scales. California went from having over 80% of furniture with flame retardants in 2014 to a market where more than 80% of furniture sold in 2018 was now free of these toxic and unnecessary chemicals. And we didn’t stop there – we wanted these chemicals gone from furniture altogether. In 2018, CEH pushed for and won the first statewide ban on flame retardants in furniture and children’s products in California. Given the size of California’s market, this law will push companies to make products safer for the entire nation. But much work remains to be done to put an end to the use of the entire Hazardous Handful.

What You Can Do

Thanks to our work, the danger posed by these hazardous chemicals in everyday office furniture has been greatly reduced. But, by making a few simple and cost-neutral choices when purchasing furniture, you can seize a valuable opportunity to improve indoor air quality, protect employees’ health, and broaden the market for safer products.

  • The single best way to protect yourself and your employees from harmful chemicals is not to purchase products containing them in the first place. Once these chemicals escape into the work environment, they are difficult to remove.
  • CEH’s shopping guide can provide you with hundreds of products from major manufacturers that offer safer alternatives.
  • Minimize contact with dust and wash your hands often, especially before eating.
  • If possible, open your windows frequently for good ventilation.
  • Encourage your organization to have your office vacuumed regularly, preferably with a HEPA filter

Have your organization sign our Purchaser Pledge to Prefer Healthier Furniture. If your business, university, government agency or other institution is interested in moving the market towards healthier furniture and would like to join us by signing the Purchaser’s Pledge, please contact Judy Levin at judy@ceh.org.

Here are some arguments to use to convince your company to reduce health risks in the office: Choosing furniture free of chemicals can save money. There are a large number of healthier furniture options to choose from. These toxic chemicals often do not work as advertised. Purchasing healthier furniture can also help you obtain points toward LEED certification. And making the transition to healthier furniture would be a major success story for your sustainability efforts.

If you have questions about purchasing office furniture, please send an email to Judy Levin at judy@ceh.org.

Resources

CEH Blog: CEH’s Award-Winning Success in Kicking Toxic Chemicals Out of Furniture
CEH Report: Guide for Purchasing Furniture Free of the Hazardous Handful Chemicals
CEH Report: Kicking Toxic Chemicals Out of the Office: An Easy Guide to Going Flame Retardant-Free
CEH Press Release: Major Companies Demanding Safer Office Furniture, Without Harmful Chemicals
CEH Pledge: Safer Office Furniture Without Flame Retardants
CEH In the News: Corporate Furniture Procurement Stamps Out Toxic Flame Retardants