Toxic furniture:
the effects of flame retardants and other chemicals

The products - new computer, mattress, lounge suite, and sound speakers
The symptoms – sore throat, depression, headaches, sensitivity to smells, foggy brain, fatigue and asthma
Flame retardants – the evidence
What you can do
More information


The products

Flame retardants are used increasingly in electrical goods, foam and soft furnishings. They can cause a range of reactions. Other chemicals such as plasticizers may also be a cause of reactions.

New computer

When my husband bought me a new computer, I developed a sore throat, headache, severe foggy brain, fatigue and inability to concentrate within hours of using it, and an increased sensitivity to perfumes after a few days. When he tried to use it the same thing happened to him. The retailers refused to take us seriously. After 18 months of running it in the garage waiting for it to gas off (it gassed off slightly), we took the hardly-used computer to an internet café and sold it for $500, a loss of $1500.

Flame retardants in computers – the research

Research from Sweden suggests that emissions from the plastic of computer video monitors may affect the health of computer users. Published in "Environmental Science and Technology," the journal of the American Chemical Society, the study shows that triphenyl phosphate can cause reactions ranging from itching and nasal congestion to headaches.

Triphenyl phosphate is a chemical compound widely used as a flame retardant in the plastic of video monitors and other products. Computer monitors emit the compound when their temperature rises during normal operations, said Conny Ostman, lead author of the study, from Stockholm University in Sweden. It is unknown how much exposure can cause an allergic reaction, he added. What is known is that new computers emit more of the compound than older ones.

"We have focused our interest on this compound since it has been proven to be a contact allergen to man and due to the fact that a number of workers in Sweden have acquired health problems related to computer work," Ostman said. The researchers measured the level of the compound in the "breathing zone," located about two feet in front of the video screen. The emissions levels dropped sharply after eight days of continuous operation, the researchers found, but remained 10 times higher than the background level even after 183 days - roughly the equivalent of about two years of working use.

Computers are a significant source of allergenic emissions in small indoor environments like offices, Ostman said. Even with adequate ventilation, the compound may be a potential health hazard for computer users, he warned. The researchers found appreciable concentrations of the compound in 10 of the 18 brand new video monitors they tested, but declined to name their manufacturer, saying that almost all manufacturers use the same flame retardant compound, and that the presence and levels of triphenyl phosphate in monitors varied with the place where they were manufactured.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets a safety limit of three milligrams per cubic meter of air for triphenyl phosphate, noting that it can cause changes in blood enzymes in humans. The chemical is also classified as causing "occupational allergic contact dermatitis." A concentration of 1,000 milligrams per cubic meter of air is listed as "immediately dangerous to life or health" by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. The hotter the computer monitors get, the more triphenyl phosphate is emitted by their plastic covers

Besides its use in plastic products, triphenyl phosphate is also an ingredient in some pesticides.

- from Chemical in Computer Monitors Triggers Allergies, Illness by Cat Lazaroff, Washington, DC, September 19, 2000, Environment News Service

What you can do

  • Buy a flat screen.
  • Buy a display computer that has already been running in the shop.
  • Buy a low-emission computer (Dell offers one).
  • Ask sales staff to carry all products you intend to purchase outside into the carpark so you can smell the items away from all the other smells of the shop. Once you have purchased a computer, you will not be able to return it.
  • Allow the product to gas off in garage or well ventilated area such as a verandah (or tent). For some products a few weeks or months of gassing off will be enough.


New speakers for CD player

“After several months, my husband simply had to return the speakers he'd bought for the CD player as after several months they smelled as bad as ever and we couldn't have them anywhere we were spending time. He swapped to a different brand and also insisted on taking their shop display model. We had no problem after that” – reader, NZ

And another computer story – mould odor

I am inquiring whether there are similar experiences out there with a source of a mold odor in an office. For the past several weeks, we had a moldy "old book" type odor in our office and the cause has been identified as a Dell Model M992, 19 inch computer monitor that was made in Malaysia. [note that Dell also makes an eco-friendly low emission model] Here is the story:

Numerous complaints about odors in the south side of the 3rd floor began on Wednesday, April 23. Most people described the odor as moldy or musty, smells like old musty books. Several people said they had headaches and eye irritation associated with the odors. We initially thought it might be associated with the ventilation system since HVAC preventative maintenance occurred at about the same day and time. The odor was temporal in nature, it began about 8:30 AM, was strongest around 10 AM to 11:00 AM and went away about 5:00 PM. We tried using smoke tubes to look at airflow patterns and using a moisture meter to check for damp materials, but nothing obvious was found. Although the odor pattern was different than the HVAC operation times, we tried various things like shutting off the supply duct in the local area, and even had the entire HVAC system shut down over a weekend until 10:00 Am on Monday morning. There were no odors over the weekend and once again the odor returned about 8:30 AM on Monday morning without the HVAC on. So we figured there was a local source with a pattern that was similar to someone's 8 to 4:30 work schedule. But during this 3 week period, we emptied and moved file cabinets, smelled rugs, plants, books and anything else that might be associated with a moldy book type odor. Finally, a couple of the scientists here put it together. Someone in the immediate area of the odor got a new computer on April 23 and the temporal pattern of the odor fit their work hours. After the monitor was moved to a distant office, the smell went away and that new office had a strong moldy odor.

If I had to make a list of things that might cause this odor, a new computer monitor would be on the bottom of my list. Go figure! Anyone else with similar experiences, I would like to hear about them. Thanks.

- Gerald McDonald, Indoor Health Assessment Section, Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment, New York State Department of Health This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Flame retardants and other chemicals in foam: mattresses and lounge suites

New mattress (1)

I normally have an optimistic person outlook and do not experience depression. After three days of living with a new mattress, I had to move it outside because the effect was so marked – depression within six hours of exposure. The suppliers agreed the mattress had a strong, unpleasant chemical smell and exchanged it for another non-smelly model that was perfectly satisfactory.

New mattress (2)

A nine year old boy from the NT suffered from snoring and sleep apnoea. The elimination diet revealed that a few food additives were responsible – sunset yellow (110), the bread preservative (282) and MSG (621). When he later developed the problem while avoiding his food triggers, a new mattress turned out to be the cause.

New Lounge suite

When we bought a new lounge suite - carefully ordered with 100% cotton covering, no chemicals - the effects started within 6 hours of delivery. The range of effects in household members, visiting relatives and neighbours included depression, headaches and eye irritation. Initially, the retailers refused to listen to us. After moving the lounge suite into our garage – which was connected to the house - we had to tape up the cracks around the doors to prevent the fumes from entering the rest of the house. The new lounge suite ended up in a tent on our lawn for months until the retailers agreed to give us our money back.

Flame retardant TCPP – the evidence

Although the manufacturer of the lounge suite did not want to tell us, we discovered that the flame retardant used in the foam of the lounge suite was TCPP. We thought that the levels used exceeded recommended safe levels, but it would have cost us $2,500 to have it tested, more than the price of the lounge suite. When the international programme on chemical safety reviewed assessments of TCPP [tris (chloropropyl) phosphate], it found that four tests covering 10,000 rats reported “depression”, respiratory distress, and other symptoms such as hunched posture and signs of lethargy. No studies of the effects of TCPP on humans are available. Full report:

Mattresses: what you can do

Buy a cotton futon.

Lounge suites: what you can do

Buy a second hand lounge suite or have your old lounge suite rebuilt if necessary using nontoxic wood glues, no solvents, restuffed if necessary using Dacron filling rather than foam, and re-upholstered using 100% cotton fabric, no stain repellents or other chemicals. Instead of flame retardants in your furniture, install a fire alarm.

See also the factsheets on

Introduction to food intolerance
Fumes and perfumes
Added flavours – natural or artificial, what’s the difference?
Inhaled salicylates 

The information given is not intended as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor for underlying illness. Before beginning dietary investigation, consult a dietician with an interest in food intolerance. You can see our list of experienced and supportive dietitians 

© Sue Dengate update March 2005