Furnishings, Fabrics & Finishes

By Beth Eckl Director of Environmental Purchasing Program on March 19, 2012

Harmful chemicals can be found in the most basic furniture components. Discover a range of healthy alternatives.

Photo courtesy of Mass General

While the components of furniture sound simple and basic—fabric, wood, metal, foam, and various plastics—many contain chemical ingredients that can be harmful to the patients and staff in health care facilities. Treatments, stain guards, antimicrobials, and flame retardants often are added to medical furniture to increase its resistance to water and bacteria or to make it easier to clean. However, some of these additives may contain toxins or carcinogens. Read on to discover some of the most common chemicals used in medical furnishings, and some suggestions for environmentally-friendly alternatives.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) Long recognized as inexpensive, durable, and easy to clean, vinyl upholstery is widely found on medical furnishings such as examination tables, gurneys, and stools, and may also be used on waiting-room furniture as an alternative to leather. PVC contains several chemicals of concern, including dioxins, phthalates, and organotins.

Dioxins are chemical by-products created during the vinyl manufacturing process (escaping into the air, water, and waste sludge) and released as vinyl products burn (through fires or incineration). Dioxins are some of the most potent carcinogens known to mankind.

Phthalates are plasticizers added to vinyl to soften and increase its flexibility; because they don’t bind with the materials, they are easily released into the environment. Phthalates have been found to be reproductive and developmental toxins, and have been associated with allergic reactions in children. Vinyl accounts for more than 90 percent of the total consumption of phthalates.

Organotins are a type of heavy metal used to stabilize PVC to avoid degradation from heat and light during production. The kinds of organotins used in PVC are toxic to the immune system in animals, but data in humans is extremely limited.

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) These compounds are used in stain repellants or non-stick treatments such as Teflon, Scotchguard, and Gore. PFC finishes are popular for their performance in the high-traffic environment associated with hospitals and other busy medical facilities. However, certain fluorinated compounds are suspected of being toxic, persistent in the environment, and bioaccumulating up the food chain. Studies indicate that PFCs could soon become one of the most notorious global chemical contaminants ever produced.

Antimicrobials Intentionally added antimicrobial treatments are used on the surface or other parts of furniture to reduce the risk of infection transmission. However, because of their overuse, they may be a contributing factor to growing antimicrobial-resistant bacterial infections.

Flame retardants Certain flame-retardant additives—particularly halogenated flame retardants—do not break down easily in the environment. Some animal studies have linked flame retardants with immune suppression, cancer, endocrine disruption, and neuro-behavioral and developmental effects. Polyurethane foam padding used in furniture generally contains a common halogenated flame retardant, which releases into the building as the padding ages. This chemical has been found in alarmingly high levels in wildlife and humans, including in breast milk.

Heavy metals in dyes and fabrics Some fabrics today use dyes and binders that are manufactured using synthetic chemical additives that may contain heavy metals such as cadmium (a known carcinogen) or cobalt and antimony trioxide (both possible carcinogens). In addition, hexavalent chromium (VI), a known human carcinogen that is toxic when inhaled, can be found in chrome plating and textile dyes.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) VOCs are emitted as gases from a wide array of interior building products, including furnishings, and can have a detrimental effect on indoor air quality. Formaldehyde is a common VOC; it’s used as an adhesive in furniture made with pressed wood. High concentrations of formaldehyde can trigger an attack in people with asthma, and it has been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans.

In addition to avoiding products that contain any of the chemicals or additives listed above, consider the following suggestions for environmentally friendly health care furnishings.

Instead of PVC, choose upholstery and cushioning foams made from synthetic leather, natural fibers, polyurethane, nylon, wool, ramie, polyester, cotton, or polyethylene. Consider organically grown fibers instead of synthetic fibers.

Look for furnishings with recycled content—not just in fabric, but also in plastic and metal components. Products made with post-consumer recycled content (which uses materials collected from recycling programs as opposed to industrial manufacturing sources) are preferred. Ask suppliers to meet or exceed the U.S. EPA recommended recycled content guidelines for office furniture. (Details can be found at epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/tools/cpg/products/furniture.htm.)

Choose wood furnishings sourced from sustainably harvested forests to ensure greater protection of ecologically important areas. One of the largest certifiers of sustainable forests is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a nonprofit organization that certifies wood harvested in accordance with strict standards through the entire chain of custody.

To offset the demand for forest resources, using reclaimed or salvaged wood or millwork is an option, though limited. Reclaimed wood is usually taken from buildings slated for demolition, abandoned railroad trestles, trees recently harvested from urban or suburban areas (such as disease-killed trees) and “sinker” logs that sank decades ago during river-based log drives. If considering this option, make sure lead paint was not used on reclaimed or salvaged pieces.

Consider rapidly renewable materials, such as straw and wheat board, sunflower seed board, and plastics produced from bio-based materials.

Consider products with components that can be replaced when they wear out. Replacing parts, refurbishing, or upgrading furniture costs considerably less than buying new and avoids some of the end-of-life considerations.

Buy furniture that can be recycled at the end of its life. Suppliers can demonstrate a commitment to recyclability through product design. Furniture should be as simple as possible, with a minimum of different materials (for example, assembled with mechanical fasteners rather than adhesives).

Ask suppliers if they offer a take-back or buy-back program for their products to eliminate unnecessary waste and disposal costs. You might also consider leasing furniture as an alternative.

Sustainable Product Design

The number of companies providing products designed with sustainability in mind is growing. Here is a short list of suppliers making a difference in greening the supply chain.

Reusable Textiles and Basins

SRI Surgical offers a unique service and makes high-quality reusable products such as gowns, backtable and Mayo stand covers, towels and patient drapes, and basin sets. The company provides daily delivery, retrieval, processing, inspection, assembly, and sterilization of the reusable textiles from FDA regulated processing service centers. www.srisurgical.com


LDI Corporation produces PVC-free upholstery for medical furnishings. Its EnviroLeather PVC-free synthetic leather is also chlorine-free, Bromine-free, and plasticizer-free with no heavy metals, or Azo dyestuffs. Impervious to fluids it is stain resistant and designed for comfort. www.ldisolutions.com

Beds and Mattresses

Sizewise designs environmentally-friendly beds for hospitals and uses a powder-coating process opposed to aerosolized painting, and uses blended virgin and recycled plastic. All steel runoff goes to a certified company for recycling. The company also uses environmentally preferred products, which do not contain latex, mercury, carcinogens, PBT’s, or reproductive toxins. www.sizewise.net

Naturepedic organic mattresses are made without harmful chemicals. Mattresses pass all federal flammability standards without the use of flame retardant chemicals or barriers. Naturepedic mattresses are made with organic cotton fabric and fill. www.naturepedic.com

Fire Retardants

Ventex is a supplier to mattress furniture, health care, and retail markets. The company’s products range from fire barriers to health care fabrics, which are moisture resistant, antibacterial, and breathable. www.ventexfabrics.com

Reprocessing Products

SterilMed helps health care providers reduce the amount of waste generated by converting single-use medical devices into reusable devices, equipment repair and pre-owned sales equipment. The product not only reduces waste but also reduces health care costs. www.sterilmed.com

Stryker is a leader in sustainability solutions in the health care facilities and is also a provider in medical device reprocessing and remanufacturing. In turn this allows hospitals to cut down costs and redirect resources. sustainability.stryker.com

Building Materials

C S Group designs a host of products for lowering the environmental impact of buildings, which include CS louvers with aluminum anodized and powder coated finishes made with recycled content and Acrovyn Doors, a composite wood with recycled content as well as rapidly renewable materials and offers many FSC-certified door options. www.c-sgroup.com