Get Off the Hot Seat

Six years ago, Ross and Christine Endicott stopped selling furniture containing toxic chemicals; now the state is following their lead.

In August, Maine became the first state in the nation to ban the use of flame-retardant chemicals in residential upholstered furniture. By wide margins in both the House and Senate, state legislators rejected chemical-industry lobbyists’ claims that the ban would endanger Mainers. The law takes effect January 1, 2019. Firefighters were among the most vocal supporters of the ban. They cited lab tests that found flame retardants not only do little to prevent or slow fires but also release carcinogenic gases when they burn. The substances — typically applied to polyurethane foam cushions — have been linked to the increased risk of cancer faced by firefighters.

But firefighters aren’t the only ones affected, according to Ross Endicott, who, with his wife Christine, banished flame-retardant upholstery from their store, Endicott Home Furnishings in Scarborough, in 2011. “When you sit on a seat cushion, it releases chemicals into the room, where they mix with heavy particles like dust,” he explains. “The back end of your vacuum blows that stuff all over everything in your house. It gets up in the air, onto your sheets, your toothbrush, your dishes, your hands.” Endicott made several trips to the State House to testify in support of the ban. He talked to lawmakers about Mainers’ health and how landfilled upholstery seeps chemicals into the groundwater. And he told them about the recession-era risk he took when he stopped selling toxic upholstery cushions. “My business improved at a time when other stores were closing,” he says.

We sat down with Endicott to talk about his ahead-of-the-curve choices — including the new toxin-free, stain-resistant fabric he’s fallen in love with.

Q: What prompted you to stop selling chemical-flame-retardant furniture?

A: We were developing new styles — pieces scaled for small spaces that were unique to our store — and we had attracted a strong following among retirees and others who were downsizing. We had a few dozen brand-new seat cushion prototypes in our attic, and my son was in paradise. Can you imagine my horror when I found out that 11 percent of the cushions he was jumping on had carcinogenic flame retardants — and they weren’t on the label? It all came together: We have a young family, we were thinking of buying furniture for ourselves, and we already had our own designs being made for us. Why not work with the manufacturers to get the flame retardants out of the cushions? But it wasn’t easy.

Q: How so?

A: You couldn’t find untreated furniture. For 39 years, starting in 1975, California had a law requiring that the fillings used in cushions withstand open-flame tests, so manufacturers added chemical flame retardants — and everyone in the country got the same cushions. The general understanding was that it was federal law.

Q: Wait — you mean it wasn’t?

A: Only in California, but because California represents such a large share of the market, it didn’t make economic sense to make the product differently for other places. Then, each time a chemical flame retardant was called out for having a carcinogenic compound, California would ban it and the manufacturers would create “new,” “improved,” “better” chemicals to sell to furniture makers. It was a whack-a-mole game.

Q: So what did you do?

A: It wasn’t a clear path forward at that time. The recession was coming on hard. The cost to re-do our line probably ran over $20,000, because the cushions don’t feel the same when you take out the chemicals. And now ours were custom pieces that had to be handled on special order. There was a great deal of resistance from our suppliers.

Q: How did your customers respond?

A: We actually grew through the recession, and I have to attribute that to our approach to making furniture safe. Before we switched to flame-retardant-free products, our customer base was largely retirees. Now, probably 30­-40 percent of our consumers are under age 50. That’s a major increase. People who choose to live in Maine have an awareness of chemicals in the environment. For instance, I have a customer who’s prioritizing a $2,000 organic mattress over the bed frame, box spring, and other bedroom furniture — before she even has a sofa. And that isn’t an isolated incident.

Q: How difficult will it be for Maine furniture sellers to comply with the ban?

A: No one is going to have trouble procuring furniture that complies with this law because national awareness about chemical flame retardants has exploded. Plus, as of 2014, California’s fire safety standard no longer requires the open-flame test for foam cushions. Now, upholstery covers and interlayers have to pass a cigarette-smoldering test, and it’s possible for manufacturers to meet that standard without chemical flame retardants. So chemical flame retardants aren’t required anywhere in the country now, and they’re banned in one state, Maine.

Q: How do you have meaningful protection from fire without chemical flame retardants?

A:  Seat cushion cores are wrapped in an extruded batting material about ½–inch thick on top, bottom, front, and usually the sides. The rear of the cushion, where there is often a zipper, may not have the batting covering that plane, as it would not be facing open flame if placed on the sofa properly. When exposed to open flames, this batting material melts to form a barrier that covers the foam and slows the spread of flames sufficiently to be considered an acceptable fire protection barrier in the view of California’s Consumer Protection Agency.

Q: How can a consumer be sure the upholstered furniture she’s buying is free of harmful flame retardants?

A: California’s 2014 law requires labels that state whether the furniture contains chemical flame retardants or not. But furniture is still made with fire-retardant foam. That’s why we wanted to help lobby Maine’s lawmakers to ban them all until they can be proven beneficial — or even effective at what they are claimed to do.

Q: Are there chemicals in fabrics that we need to be concerned about?

A: Chemical treatments that make furniture stain resistant can be a problem. Most of the time, that treatment has something in it that’s not good for the person applying it, the person sitting on it, and the planet absorbing it when you throw it away. Thirteen years ago, when we adopted this business, I personally applied a stain-resistant fabric finish that contained phthalates, which are endocrine disrupters. It off-gases for a period of at least a month, and since it’s generally good practice to dispatch ordered items as soon as possible to keep your customer happy, it comes off in people’s houses. I stopped offering that product about four years ago.

Q: Did you find a safe replacement?

A: We went through a sad, dry period of not great options, then two things happened: Crypton, a giant in the fabric industry, created a new stain-protection formula that is absent of toxic fluorochemicals. I’ve followed it closely and I’ve not seen any issues with it. We offer that. Then there’s my new superhero: Revolution Performance Fabrics. There are probably a dozen pieces in our store that are covered in this olefin fabric, which is made from recycled drink bottles. It hits on everything consumers care about: it looks great, it feels good, it’s durable and naturally stain resistant, and it can be cleaned with any household cleaner. We covered a sofa in this stuff and put it in our camp in Belgrade. The first family who rented it left huge stains on two cushions. We took the covers off, threw them in the wash, threw them back on, and they’re perfect.

Cover Photo: In a Portland living room, versatile, non-toxic Natalie Swivel Chairs from Endicott Home Furnishings were upholstered in the client’s own material to match a cheerful palette.