I’m still deep in the throes of preparing for a move. As I look at space allocation options for the suite that my son and I are planning to build in his garage, it’s becoming increasingly clear that even the few furniture pieces I had planned to take are going to be too big and I’m going to have to make some new purchases. For people with chemical sensitivities, any purchase can be problematic, and requires much research. As I shop for possibilities online, I’m reminded of the games that manufacturers and marketers play and the confusion that exists among the general public regarding materials used in furniture and housing. It’s not easy to figure out what we’re actually getting.
Here are a few confusing terms related to the home environment:
· Solid wood – Technically, something made of solid wood is made of basic lumber. Much of the wood furniture sold today, however, is made of a manufactured wood product, such as particleboard, medium density fiberberboard (MDF), high density fiberboard (HDF) or oriented strand board (OSB). Chipboard, flakeboard, furniture board, composite wood, and engineered wood are other possible terms. Manufacturers may refer to them as “solid wood products” or as of being made of “wood solids.” Sometimes private sellers advertising products on sites like eBay or Craigslist will say that a piece of furniture made from particleboard is solid wood. This may be due to confusion as to material type, but sometimes I think they just mean that the piece doesn’t contain metal or upholstery.
Manufactured wood products combine small wood particles with an adhesive resin. Plywood uses layers of wood rather than particles, but otherwise the principle is the same. When used in furniture, manufactured wood is generally covered with a laminate or veneer, making the identification process more challenging. The toxicity of manufactured wood can be high, and comes from the adhesives, which often contain large amounts of formaldehyde and other problematic chemicals.
· Bonded leather – Bonded leather is the fabric equivalent of manufactured wood. Wikipedia expains that “bonded leather is made by shredding leather scraps and leather fiber, then mixing it with bonding materials. The mixture is next extruded onto a fiber cloth, or paper backing, and the surface is usually embossed with a leather-like texture or grain.” The amount of natural leather in bonded leather products can vary significantly and can sometimes be quite low. The primary bonding material is generally polyurethane, and among the other chemicals commonly found in bonded leather are plasticizers, which have been associated with a range of health problems.
Terms for leather-like synthetic fabrics (which are generally some form of vinyl) include leatherette, pleather, and naugahyde. “Vegan leather” is an especially interesting term. It can refer to any non-animal leather-like product. Generally it refers to vinyl, but can occasionally refer to alternative leathers made from cork or kelp.
· Linoleum – True linoleum is a product made from linseed oil and natural materials such as powdered cork, tree resin, and limestone. It was once used widely as a flooring material, but has now been largely replaced by vinyl. Generally, manufacturers and marketers don’t use the term incorrectly, but private sellers, realtors, and landlords may refer to linoleum flooring when the flooring is actually a vinyl product.
· Hardwood or ceramic floors – Another flooring issue that people searching for healthy housing often encounter is that homes or apartments advertised as having hardwood or ceramic tile floors may actually be floored with a laminate. Laminates have a manufactured wood core with a photographic layer bonded to it that simulates wood or ceramic. Generally the term “floating floor” refers to laminate flooring.
Shopping with health in mind means learning to be a code-breaker. It’s not easy, but it’s important. Once I’ve cracked this code, I’ll move on to another: trying to decipher the color designations. Is elm bark, for example, more brown or gray? This all makes my head spin.