Fabrics, Furnishings, and Indoor Air Quality
Consider natural fibers when selecting drapes and window coverings to avoid fabric treatments and off-gassing.

Soft goods are designed to make your home cozy and comfortable. They include mattresses, pads, bedding, cushions, and drapes. Unfortunately, the very things that make them soft can make them unsafe to breathe. Fabric treatments, foams, and synthetic fibers can release chemicals that are harmful to your health.

The Flame-Retardant Controversy
To lower the risk of household fires, the federal government requires mattresses to meet certain flammability standards. Manufacturers have taken various approaches to meet the requirements: Some use fibers that are slow to burn; others treat various components of the mattress with flame-retardant chemicals. Flame retardants are also widely used in fabrics and in foams, battings, and fillers found in cushions and furniture.

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says the more common fire-retardant chemicals, including melamine, vinyl chloride, antimony trioxide, boric acid, and decabromodiphenyl oxide, don’t pose a risk to people. "We looked at all the real-world scenarios, including bed wetting and jumping up and down, and it proved that even under extreme-use conditions there is an insignificant risk of health problems to consumers," says CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis.

Consumer and health advocacy groups disagree. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group cites studies linking fire retardants to health effects including neurological damage, reproductive problems, and permanent memory loss. Advocates have called for banning the use of these chemicals and/or labeling chemically treated products to guide consumers. The federal government does not require such labels, says Steve Ecklund of the Federal Trade Commission, because "there are no laws to require disclosure of these chemicals." In addition to fire-retardants, the covers of mattresses and pads can contain soft plastics with other chemicals, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which may also be associated with health problems.

Fabrics, Furnishings, and Indoor Air Quality
When selecting a mattress, consider healthy alternatives like natural rubber cores surrounded by organic cotton fabrics and wool mattress pads that repel moisture and act as a natural flame retardant.

If you want to protect yourself from possible chemical exposure in bedding, there are many alternatives on the market featuring natural, untreated components. You can select mattresses and toppers filled with foam made from natural rubber, lined with wool, which is a natural fire retardant, and covered with organic, chemical-free cottons. There are also chemical-free steel-coil mattresses with organic cotton covers and battings. Since these special beds are often pricey, you may be able to ask your doctor to prescribe one. You can also buy cushions, pillows, and comforters filled with organic cotton, buckwheat hulls, wool or hypoallergenic down that are covered with organic fabrics.

Permanent-Press Fabrics
Permanent-press soft goods such as sheets, blankets and draperies are often treated with formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound that may cause breathing difficulties, nausea, and even cancer. If you want to avoid formaldehyde, choose products made from chemical-free cottons and wools. Regular cotton is not the best alternative as it may also contain pesticides, herbicides, or potentially toxic dyes. For window treatments, buy easily washable curtains made from chemical-free natural fabrics or synthetics. If you buy treated, non-washable drapes, air them out before bringing them inside.

Don’t Forget the Furniture

Furniture is composed of wood products, foams, and fabrics. When looking to reduce the amount of chemicals in your air, pay special attention to fabric-covered couches and chairs. Read the labels and check with staff to see how the foam is treated. Consider buying natural rubber cushions, down, or wool stuffing. Ask if the fabrics are natural or synthetic and whether they have been treated. If you’re concerned about your air quality, don’t get stain treatments.

Check the structure of the furniture. Ask if it is hardwood or pressboard. Solid wood construction will reduce the amount of glues used in manufacturing. Pressboard is made with glues and formaldehyde and will continue to emit noxious chemicals over time.

Even buying a product labeled as organic does not guarantee it will be chemical-free. That’s because a universal organic growing and labeling protocol does not exist. You can try to research the maker’s manufacturing practices. One place to start is the website of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, www.ifoam.org. Ginny Turner, president of Ecobaby Organics and Pure-Rest Organic Bedding Co. in San Diego, California, says you can remove many chemicals by washing your fabrics with a solution of borax, distilled vinegar, and laundry detergent.

Dust Mites
Some of our favorite soft goods—comforters, mattresses and mattress toppers—are prime living and breeding areas for dust mites, a common indoor air pollutant that can cause allergies and respiratory irritation. A typical used mattress, for example, may contain 100,000 to 10 million mites. "It’s really important to keep dust mites from populating like mad," says Robert Moffitt of the American Lung Association’s Health House program.

To control dust mites, wash bedding weekly in water 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover mattresses and pillows with allergen-impermeable zippered covers. Since dust mites thrive in dampness, keep relative humidity levels at 50 percent or below. Vacuum often.

Dry Cleaning
Whenever you have drapes, blankets, comforters, and other soft goods dry cleaned, remember that the chemical most often used in the process is perchloroethylene, which the Environmental Protection Agency has linked to cancer in animals. Make sure your items are completely dry when you pick them up from the cleaner and check that they don’t have a strong chemical smell. Take the fabrics out of the plastic bag and air them fully before bringing them in the house.