Office furniture shouldn’t just be functional and look and feel good, it should also be good for your health.
I was once called to the home of a family who had recently relocated and were now all getting headaches, and the little boy was getting rashes.
When I got there I saw (and smelled) the brand new leather-topped desk in the home office. It looked very impressive, I must say. Unfortunately, because it was brand new, it was still off-gassing the preservatives (including fungicides and formaldehyde) used in its manufacture.
Try to avoid leather
One of the major ingredients used in preserving leather is formaldehyde. It's an excellent preservative - it's what's used to embalm bodies prior to funerals. It is also a carcinogen, irritant, allergen and can give you almighty headaches.
Also avoid PVC
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is linked with many adverse health effects, including birth defects, immune system disorders, reproductive health disorders, endocrine and nervous system abnormalities, and cancers.
I remember getting car sick on long journeys as a child, and I now know that this was actually caused by the PVC used in the car interior heating up and off-gassing. PVC Is horrid stuff, give it a miss.
... and particle board, chipboard and MDF
Furniture made from particle board, chipboard or MDF (medium-density fibreboard) should also be avoided. This is recycled or waste timber (that’s great!), which has been broken down and glued together with formaldehyde (that’s bad!), and sometimes covered with melamine or contact. The glue (and therefore the formaldehyde) can off-gas into your office or home. If you’ve already got this type of furniture and decide to get rid of it, for everyone's sake, don't burn it!
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The other issue with chipboard is that it's a haven for mould. If "real" wood gets mould on it, you can clean it off and let the liquid soak in. When chipboard gets wet, it disintegrates, rots very quickly and attracts mould. If it’s a piece of furniture that you store other things in – like books or files – you’ll likely find that they get mouldy too.
Choose natural products
Natural products are great. Wood is excellent, and should preferably be raw and unfinished. That's because the finishes and varnishes you get on wood can contain acetone, benzene, ethylene glycol, methylene chloride, toluene and xylene. These are solvents that normally "flash off" while the varnish is curing, however smaller amounts can continue to off-gas for some time.
You know that "new paint" or "new varnish" smell? It’s toxic. Wood finishes that contain few or no volatile organic compounds (low-VOC or no-VOC) are available, so ask your furniture supplier to use these oils or finishes prior to supply or add them yourself.
Antiques are a good option if you can afford them and they fit with you décor. Because they're old they've usually off-gassed most of their toxins. Of course the exception to this is antiques that have been re-finished with modern toxic finishes. Second-hand (but real) timber from op-shops is a good option, too.
Glass and steel are also good, especially if you like the modern look. Go for low- or no-VOC paints or finishes on the steel though.
When it comes to your soft furnishings, carpets and underlays, again go for natural products, such as wool. Don't get the anti-stain or the fire-retardants additives though, because they’re toxic. And don’t forget to check how your carpets and underlay are to be installed; there’s no point choosing superb quality, non-toxic carpet only to discover it’s been glued down with the yucky stuff discussed above.
Have you had health problems from your office furniture? Please share your story below.
“ When chipboard gets wet, it disintegrates, rots very quickly and attracts mould. ”