Avoiding Flame Retardants in the Home

Sources of Flame Retardants in the Home


Many household items in North America contain flame retardants (FRs). One of the biggest contributors in the home has historically been polyurethane foam. Many mattresses and most sofas contain polyurethane. Pillows, including nursing pillows, car seats and child safety seats, carpet padding, foam insulation are sources of foam. Other non-foam sources in the home include curtains,  electronics and toys. Outside the the home, cars and camping gear are sources that we will also go over in this post.

Flame retardants are found in dust form in the household, and the main route of exposure from household items is dust to hand to mouth, though you also inhale them and ingest them.


This post contains Amazon affiliate links for the products I recommend.


     Here are the the most important things to do right now to reduce exposure to flame retardants

  1. Use a HEPA vacuum to clean your house, including upholstery. Use other cleaning methods in the section on cleaning, including using wet wiping and washing hands before eating. This alone will cut exposure in half! (source)

  2. Throw out conventional upholstery with FR that is ripped and has exposed foam - this includes sofas, beds, car seats, child car seats and pillows. Don't try and save them!

  3. Get rid of foam items made before 2015, replace with FR-free versions. I have posts on choosing FR-free, non-toxic mattresses and sofas.

  4. Your mattress should be the priority to replace no matter the age if it has FR, due to the time spent in bed and the proximity to the foam. If you can't replace your mattress, encase it with this cover to reduce FRs from migrating out.  

  5. Get rid of electronics made before 2008, replace with brands that have eliminated the most toxic FRs.


        If you do not read further than this those five steps will have made a huge difference!


If you assistance choosing the best FR-free furniture & mattress for your sensitivities, please contact me for a one on one consultation. 



Flame Retardants that are Toxic 


Here are the main classic toxic flame retardants found in the home that we are trying to avoid. However some items contain replacement FRs, that may be less toxic, or we may just know less about their toxicity profile. Some of the FRs that can be claim to be non-toxic are boric acid, newer chemicals that we don't have as much data on, and aluminum based FR which I am very concerned about, silver, Kevlar and nano particles. Some FR are more embedded/bonded and more stable, and others drift out more easily or are topical treatments.

Flame Retardant Exposure By Source 


Polyurethane Couches

Now that California has changed its policy requiring flame retardants in furniture, it is a whole lot easier to find beds and furniture without these toxic chemicals. Even better, California law requires a label indicating whether there are chemical flame retardants or not in the furniture. These new laws took effect January 2015.

What if you have older furniture containing more toxic forms of flame retardants like PBDE?

Mercola says, "be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, as these are most likely to contain PBDEs. If you have any of these in your home, inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also, avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure" (source)

Flame Retardant-Free Couches


A lot of the big companies got rid of flame retardants in their couches that are manufactured after January 2015. Many of the big companies now are free of chemical flame retardants, including Room and Board, IKEA, Crate and Barrel, West Elm and Pottery Barn and many others.

MedleyHome.com
Keep in mind that these companies still use foams, glues, fabric finishes and possibly particle boards that do offgas. I review and compare companies making green couches here that go to every extent to reduce or even eliminate offgassing and FR.

My top pick will depend on a person's needs, sensitivities and budget so do check out the whole list, but usually my go-to pick will be Medley. They are affordable, you can choose between natural latex and polyurethane, they are FR-free, and I was happy with all the glues, fabrics and wood used in them. The code MyChemFreeHouse10 will get you 10$ off.

A Common Question: Does IKEA use Flame Retardants?

This used to be a question that would result in a lot of run-around from the company. Now IKEA furniture (upholstered and mattresses) made after January 2015 and sold in the US and Canada does not contain flame retardants in the bedding and sofas. The stitch bond and zippers do contain chemical flame retardants, though I consider that to be very minor.

Flame Retardants in Mattresses

With mattresses, some of the big companies are also moving away from added flame retardants - companies like Sealy, Tuft and Needle, Casper and IKEA. Serta may use boric acid, but not the more toxic chemicals.

IKEA Mausund via Ikea.com
IKEA's MAUSUND (previously Morongava / Sultan) is made of 85% natural latex with no polyurethane or FRs. It is is a fairly safe mattress. (There is 15% synthetic latex). It contains no polyurethane and no flame retardants. I have a warning in Mattresses and Bedding about natural latex and mould.

See my post on mattresses to source and compare all natural versions that do not contain synthetic materials or offgass harmful chemicals (you have to consider the fabrics, fabric treatment and glues as well as foams). My Green Mattress can match this price point without the natural latex risk or synthetic latex.

My top pick will always be Naturepedic, this is a favorite among those who are sensitive due to their organic and low odour materials.

Flame Retardants in Carpet

Earth Weave Carpet
There are many companies making organic or natural fiber carpet, such as wool. For rugs, some good options include cotton, rattan or jute. In my furniture post I go over the companies that are committed to making area rugs without toxins. Non-toxic FR-free carpet is covered in the post on flooring.

Conventional types from big box stores contain a long list of chemicals including flame retardants. Many big box stores now carry carpet brands with the Green Label + certification which is not a low enough level for sensitive folks. Always ask about FRs, since these are not considered VOCs, especially in the rug padding.

Be careful when removing old carpet as the FRs can become scattered as dust. Do not do this yourself if you are sensitive. Here is a video on the safety precautions when removing carpet.

Flame Retardants in other Polyurethane Items

Car seats are unfortunately an unavoidable source of flame retardant. To reduce exposure, use a HEPA vacuum as described in the section on cleaning to vacuum the seats and change clothing when you get home. Leather seats might be preferable, depending on if the leather itself was treated. Leather in theory should reduce migration of FR out from the foam.

Child car seats often contain FR, but you can buy specialty ones without added chemicals. The UPPAbaby car seat is my top pick with no flame retardants and no chemical treatments on the fabric.

If you are not sure if your polyurethane item contains FR, ask the company, check the date and labels. You can also send a sample of foam to Duke University for free testing, if somehow you have access to the foam inside. Some companies do provide samples of their foam. or, if you have a tear in the item this would be another opportunity to send it in for testing.

Flame Retardants in Fabrics

Curtains

Earthshade safe blinds
It's hard to know which curtains contains FRs as they will not be labeled. I would assume that curtains from hardware stores and conventional stores do contain flame retardants as well as possibly a formaldehyde finish.

GOTS certified fabrics and curtains from green companies will be safer.

I have a post on window coverings with chemical-free options for all types of window coverings.




Clothing like Children's Pajamas

Children's pajamas used to contain toxic FRs, but now it is very rare that they do.

If you want to wash out the FRs from curtains and other cloth items see the section on cleaning below.

Flame Retardants in Insulation

Rigid Foam Insulation 

EPS foam
HBCD is typically used in polystyrenes including EPS and XPS. TCPP is typically used in polyisocyanurate foams (source).

There is no EPS or XPS insulation without flame retardants on the market currently (source).

GAF polyiso EnergyGuard-NH uses a halogen-free flame retardant, not TCPP, which is safer.  

Spray Foam Insulation

Almost all spray foams made in the US contain FRs, usually TCPP (source). I list healthy and natural insulation options in my post on Insulation.


Flame Retardants in Electronics


PBDEs were phased out of electronics in the US and Europe in 2013. It does seem that these chemicals leach from electronics (source). TCPBA and TBBPA are often used on the circuit boards as well as the plastic external casings. There are a dozen different FRs that might be present in electronics (source). Organohalgens (halogenated flame retardants) became the biggest concern after PBDR. They have mostly been phased out of electronics and were replaced with phosphate FRs and other newer chemicals, often aluminum based, which I don't consider safe (source).

In 2017 TVs were tested and Best Buy brand Insignia, was not testing positive for the most harmful FRs, though we still (2019) don't know which one they are using. All other TVs tested positive. Two contained banned FRs (PBDE)!

Computers and phones with aluminum cases (like Apple laptops) and phones with real glass components can be assumed to not contained FRs on those parts. This would greatly reduce exposure.


Flame Retardants in Camping Equipment

Most tents, sleeping mats and sleeping bags contain flame retardants. I go through the brands that explicitly do not use any flame retardants in my post on camping equipment.



How to Clean up Flame Retardants in the Home


1. Get a HEPA Vacuum

Flame retardants become mobile in dust as opposed to in gas. So keeping a dust free home is of utmost importance. David Suzuki says household dust is one of the most significant sources of childhood exposure to toxic substances. On top of flame retardants, dust contains phthalates, metals, like lead, mercury and arsenic, and pesticides.

A HEPA vacuum is necessary to clean up these toxins and will be one of the biggest improvements to air quality in the home that you can do right now.



The Nilfisk brand is recommended by the experts and is affordable. This is my first choice for most situations.

You get a lot of bang for you buck if you add a HEPA filter to a Shop-Vac (HEPA filter bags are also needed to catch all the fine dust) compared to the high end. but great quality, Miele HEPA. The shop vacuums are louder.

If you have a more serious contaminate like lead, go for a certified HEPA model like Festool which is more fool proof in its filtration system.




2. Wet Wipe, Don't Sweep!

Vacuuming is more effective than other forms of cleaning, and you should use an attachment to vacuum upholstered furniture and mattresses as well. Don't forget about your car seats!

Sweeping is not a good idea but wet wiping with wet clothes (that don't contain FRs or harmful plastics) is the next best method. Wet wipe the dashboard of your vehicle as well.

If you need to dry wipe something sensitive that can't get wet, use materials that capture dust like microfiber clothes and Swiffers.





3. Using Air filters 

The best way to remove particulates from the air including dust and FRs, is a HEPA air filter. If you don't need to filter for VOCs, you only need a simple HEPA filter with a high enough CFM to move enough air in a room to make a dent in the dust. 

I use the Vornado which has true HEPA, a good CFM and is very well priced. It has some carbon and a PCO element. It is the best value I have seen for an air purifier with these three technologies. I have a post with more details about the Vornado and what CFM means in terms of airflow here.

Other basic air filters can be used like the Honeywell and GermGuardian. Make sure it's true HEPA, has a decent CFM, and is not too loud. Some Honeywells are known for being loud. One other point of comparison is the cost of replacement filters.

If you want to pair up HEPA with a VOC filter to help with offgassing, you will be looking at more expensive brands. I compare all the best ones for folks with chemical sensitivities in this post.

4. Should you Wash Flame Retardants out of Fabric?

Fabric Softener is often mentioned as being able to remove FR due to the warning against using it on treated fabrics. However it does not actually remove the FR chemicals, only coats the fabric. Once the fabric is washed in regular detergent it retains its FR properties. Using soap (as opposed to detergent) also coats the fabric. The soap and fabric softener coating can be flammable, and that appears to be the reason why it's not recommenced on treated clothing.

There are different types of FR added, some are bonded into the fabric and some are treatments added. There is more than one chemical FR that is added topically to fabrics including tents, and  there may be different strategies to remove them. Folks are trying hot water, soaking, acidic soaks like vinegar, and enzyme cleaners. I am gathering more evidence for the effectiveness of these strategies.

Clorinated oranophoshate flame retardants are the most common ones found in laundry wastewater but older generation FRs like PBDE were found as well. These are not coming from treated clothing, but from dust in the house from furniture and electronics and other household items.

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Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist with 5 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.

For individual help on choosing the best flooring for you and your project you can schedule a consultation with me here.


Did you find this post helpful? If so you can buy me a coffee to support the research behind this blog. Thank you!
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Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the Amazon links.

Non-Toxic Mattresses & Bedding 2019

Updated Spring 2019


First, a quick backgrounder on the Chemicals in our Mattresses


Conventional mattresses are usually made of polyurethane foam or synthetic latex which offgas VOCs. It's difficult to find out exactly which chemicals were used in a particular mattress. The worst offenders are synthetic memory foam, followed by polyurethane (though almost all polyurethane can meet CertiPUR certification which I discuss here), and then synthetic latex, which usually does not meet any green certifications on its own. Going with a spring mattress reduces the amount of foam and chemicals in it.

Look for mattresses that specify no chemical flame retardants (see my post on flame retardants). Sometimes boric acid is added but not disclosed. Most natural or non-toxic mattresses contain natural latex which I have major concerns about. I discuss that as well as the best alternatives.

You also want to avoid mattresses that are stain resistant, as they contain harmful perfluorochemicals. Similarly, the chemical that makes sheets (and clothes) wrinkle-free releases formaldehyde. Some mattresses are also adding an antimicrobial agent which you would generally want to avoid (there are some natural antimicrobials that might be OK).

I recommend all of the products here, some of which have affiliate programs and some of which do not.

I will cover:

Mattresses:
  • My top picks: the best healthy spring mattresses (no latex or polyurethane) with price comparison (2019)
  • Why I don't use natural latex!
  • All wool mattresses
  • Futons
  • Alternatives to cotton and wool: buckwheat, silk, mats, hemp, DIY
  • Bed options normally used for camping that can be used inside
Accessories:
  • Sheets, pillow, encasements
  • Bedframes

Top Picks: Conventional Layered & Spring Mattresses 

Options Without: Latex, Polyurethane, Flame Retardants, Some Without Wool


My Green Mattress - The Echo is made of GOTs certified cotton and Oeko-Tex certified wool with springs. No polyester here. It is $950 for a queen (firm). For a proper spring mattress, this is the price to beat. They often have sales - June 27-July 9th they are 15% with discount code MCFH15.

Naturepedic - the Chorus is the GOTS certified organic cotton, organic wool (with almost no smell), and polyester with springs $2000 for a queen. This is my top brand, as I like the construction, it's high quality and it's a very well liked and well-tolerated brand among the very sensitive. Their kids mattresses, which come in queen sizes do not contain wool, for those who cannot tolerate wool (they are firm) for $1600.

Royal-Pedic - Makes a cotton and springs mattress (no wool) - the All Cotton line is not organic, the Natural Cotton line is organic but not certified. They also offer options with wool. This is known to be a high-end and comfortable though like the others they are firm. It is around $3000. You can find the All Cotton on Amazon, prices fluctuate over time.

Soaring Hearts - Makes a well liked spring mattress with organic GOTS certified cotton and organic wool. A queen is $5000.

Earthsake - Makes a hemp and spring mattress with no cotton, and no wool. For those with sensitivities to cotton and wool or in a humid environment this is a better choice. A queen is $2600.

The Futon Shop - has a good variety of mattresses, some with springs and coils will be more comfortable than conventional futons. Look for the ones without latex or soy foam (which is polyurethane). Some of their mattresses use boric acid, and I have heard from a number of really sensitive folks that they have reacted to the flame retardant-free versions as well (possibly to the boric). Their prices are fantastic starting at $575. (US only. They don't ship to Canada.)

Why I don't use Natural Latex


Is Natural Latex Mould-Prone?

After one of my pillows became covered in grey mould after two years in low humidity, in a new non-mouldy house I started looking into this. Over the years I have seen many many reports like this. Melting, disintegration and visible mould on pillow, and on mattresses on slats in normal humidity, sometimes when brand new. Including two recent reports of a popular organic latex brand.

There are other other cases of this on a forum and from people writing to me. It is not clear if this is a defect (these were all different brands), or whether there is a certain condition that leads to the latex breaking down. The companies have failed to adequately address this problem and continue to claim that latex is mould resistant.

I would not buy it again myself. If you do buy natural latex look closely at the warranty - it's unlikely it covers mould. If you already have one in your house, please open it up to check on the latex layer.

If you Still Want to use Natural Latex

There are plenty of options for natural latex mattresses made in US and Canada. In fact, when looking for non-toxic beds it's difficult to avoid natural latex. I have sourced the most affordable ones. (Make sure it is 100% natural latex, and test for odours/sensitivities to make sure it is tolerable).


Almost all of the green mattress brands offer natural latex, you can even find this now at Costco and IKEA.

These mattresses range from $800 to $5000. One of the most affordable options in the $800 range are by The Futon Shop.

The most economical option is to buy a 3-inch piece of latex. For around $200 (plus tax and shipping) you can get 3" natural latex from Amazon (queen). I find that 3 inches is very comfortable to sleep on.

Folks with MCS vary greatly in their ability to tolerate the natural smell of rubber and different brands work for different people. Here is a list of some of the ingredients that can be in natural latex. Essentia, which makes natural memory foam claims that the VOC levels of their foam (36 μg /m3), about the same as that of natural latex. From my research, this is around the same levels as outdoor air - but it is not 0 VOC or 0 offgassing. 

Memory Foam

Most memory foam is polyurethane and it's usually more toxic than your standard polyurethane foam, though they are not all the same. The only non-toxic memory foam out there is Essentia, which is natural latex based. VOC levels 36 μg /m3.  I looked up "background VOC levels" and found this to be background levels (though everything ads up) - here is one study and here is another study to confirm this. This mattress also contains essential oils - grapefruit seed, cone flower, and jasmine. I have tested a sample and it has a noticeable scent. Though I would not say it is flowery, it is a bit sweet. It contains Kevlar as a flame retardant


Wool Mattresses


shepherdsdream.com My Wool Mattress
I went with the purest and simplest option I could find which is a 100% eco wool mattress from Shepard's Dream. It is a (relatively) economical choice at $1585 for a queen (I have the skinny version pictured). It does have a wool smell and is firm as it gets compacted with time. If you don't like firm mattresses I would recommend using a topper with it or using the thicker version. Shepard's Dream has a referral program and I would love to use their products again in the future, so if you did find them through me I would love if you would mention my name, Corinne Segura.

Layered wool Felt: For those with extreme sensitivities, a layered option that can be washed can be very functional. Heartfelt Collective sells wool felts that can be layered and washed. To put together what would come to about a conventional queen feel, it would cost about $1900. But you may not need that many layers, or you can combine the woof felt layers with something else.

Savvy Rest makes a futon style organic GOTS cotton covered organic wool mattress for $2000.

When looking at wool qualifications you may want to know about various factors, depending on your sensitivities, such as the chemicals used to process the wool and if any flame retardants are used. Certified organic wool is becoming common, this link explains what it means. If a company claims all-natural, pure or eco-wool, you will want to take a look at what they mean by that, it might be totally acceptable.


Alternative Bed Options, With a Focus on the Chemically Sensitive:


Buckwheat:

Open Your Eyes Bedding will sell the organic cotton canvases and buckwheat hulls that you twist together yourself! (They don't deliver hull to Canada). A mattress topper or pad may be needed for comfort. Or, you could fill the canvas with organic cotton battingwool batt, or even recycled wool sweaters, and use the same twist system to make your own true DIY chemical-free mattress. What I like about this is it can be taken apart and washed and refilled.

Futons:

Futons are more affordable and often don't use flame retardants. Look for organic cotton or wool filled. Avoid conventional cotton batting which still retains a lot of pesticide. Look out for antimicrobial and even added pesticide treatments.

The Futon Shop is an obvious option for very affordable beds though folks have reported that the non-flame retardant versions might have cross contamination of boric acid.

Rawganique has 100% cotton futons as well as cotton and wool.

Another cool option is Zafu kapok fiber futon which does not compact as much as cotton and wool batting. It has an organic cotton cover, eco wool and kapok fiber. This one is recommended by sensitive folks.

Silk:

I have seen silk filled mattresses in the past, though they are hard to locate. They may be good if you cannot tolerate cotton, wool, kapok or latex. Silk mattress toppers are easier to find and you could build them up to make a mattress.

Cotton Mat:

This organic cotton mat by Dream Designs in Canada is thin but may be enough for some people who need a simple solution.


Beds Originally Made for Camping:

Cots:
For a quick and easy solution maybe a camping cot will do! Let it offgas a bit first. The plus side is there is not much to offgas there, so some time in the sun should do it.

Sleeping pads:
For sleeping pads there are the basic closed cell foam ones, this aluminized Thermarest is considered the most tolerable of those, and then there are the polyurethane self-inflating ones. I use the most deluxe Thermarest the 10 cm thick Mondoking, (it has polyurethane it in). I find it very comfortable. It takes a bit of time in the sun to offgas but many MCSers can use these. I used it after two days in the sun. After a week it was ideal for me. The general consensus for those with sore backs or who need the most comfort is a Thermarest on top of a camping cot. Though with the Mondoking you likely don't need a camping cot under it (though I would raise it or put a waterproof cover on it). Therarest claims to be flame retardant free.

For a more permanent set up, the MondoKing fits into this inexpensive Amazon Zinus Daybed.

Poly fill:
Another kind of simple sleeping mat is a Nufoam polyester fiber mat. This may be more tolerable than the camping pads that have polyurethane, plus polyester does much better with moisture than cotton, wool and other natural materials. This is ideal for an RV.

Airbed:
This phthalate and PVC-free TPU air bed by Lightspeed comes highly recommended by many chemically sensitive folks. I found it offgaseed in 2 days. Another option for PVC free airbed is this polyester bed from Intex. Some tolerate the polyester better.

These solutions can be used inside for those with trouble tolerating regular beds or they can be used in high moisture places like tents and simple trailers or shelters.

 Pillows and Sheets



For pillows you generally want natural fibers like wool or organic cotton. Kapok, or buckwheat are also good options. Never use non-organic cotton batting as the bats retain a lot of pesticides. Organic cotton batting sometimes still retains a strong smell from the oils of the cotton plant. I do like polyester because it's more moisture resistant. I use this organic cotton pillow with polyester filling, but it still needs to be washed or aired out before use. This pillow with organic cotton filling is GOTs certified (chemical-free). I have one and it did have a strong cotton oil smell at first which aired out quickly. It also has a zipper so you can wash the case or pull out the cotton itself to wash it.

Coyuchi also makes organic sheets, pillows and other bedding that is made with the chemically sensitive person in mind. I highly recommend this company. They use natural dyes but the safest bet is always virgin fabric. If you react to the product you can return it. I've been really happy with all their products. (Also available on Amazon).

Cotton that has been processed into fabric (sheets, pillow cases etc) no longer contains pesticides in theory. But stay away from permanent pressed finish (wrinkle-free finish), and make sure the dyes are steadfast or all natural. Almost all cotton that is not organic has a chemical added to it smells. Look for GOTS certified fabrics which is the best certification for non-toxic textiles.

I use GOTS certified sheets which usually need one wash to get the smell out (probably the smell of cotton oils). I use these pillowcases.

In a high moisture environment like a trailer, I use all polyester sheets and pillowcases.

NB (While we are on the topic of chemical-free fabrics here is a guide to buying chemical-free clothing or removing "sizing" chemicals and other harmful odours.)


Mattress Covers


If you have an old mattress and you want to block flame retardants from migrating out of the mattress, use a cover like Organic Lifestyle's Bed Bug Cover which is also waterproof and will protect you from dust mites and bedbugs as well. Another good use for this cover is when you are moving a mattress into a high humidity environment like a trailer or you have to put a mattress on a flat surface like the floor for a while. The polyurethane did have an odour to me but after a lot of offgassing I found it to be fine.

Polyethylene covers are the least toxic but do not hold up very well after washing and are not usually marketed as mattress encasement.

There are polypropylene covers as well, they hold up a little longer than plain polyethylene. This All in One cover is a mix of polyethylene and polypropylene and is reported to be very tolerable by someone very sensitive to plastic. They do not stop the offgassing from foam or scents that a mattress has picked up, unfortunately. If you do not have a choice but to use a offgassing or fragranced mattress and you want to block the smell you can use aluminized tarps and tape. Discard as soon as aluminum flakes off. The other option would be thick mylar bags (not the thin sheets).

If you just want dust mite covers (that are not waterproof, and don't block flame retardants), I use these Allersoft cotton mattress and pillow protectors (non-organic but were good for me after one wash). I'm really happy with them as they have reduced my allergies.

Blankets



My bed with Coyuchi blankets
I use wool blankets from Coyuchi - the natural colour with indigo stripes. It does have a wool smell, so if you are sensitive to wool try their cotton blankets. I really like wool because it's hard for me to stay the right temperature at night without them and I slept with the window open when my house was new. The wool blankets were a super good investment in my case, as they stopped me from waking up throughout the night due to being too cold.

The wool blankets are difficult for me to wash so I also tried an organic cotton blanket (this is thick and takes a long time to dry) and polyester blanket (cheap! from Walmart or Amazon). Both needed one wash at least.



Bed Frames


A metal bed frame that is powder coated would be a great option. This metal bed is inexpensive for a twin on Amazon.

Or, if you can tolerate the natural smell of wood, go with a solid wood bed frame, with solid slats (not laminated), finished with a natural finish.

For wood frames check out Organic Grace which has simple frames for $780 (queen, ships from the US).
For cool wooden headboards and frames with zero-VOC finishes check out Coyuchi (pictured below).
coyuchi.com

For something really simple and cheap this healthy Nomad Solid Hardwood Platform Bed (around a hundred for a twin) on Amazon is made of low odour poplar with solid slats.

IKEA sells solid wood frames but the slats are laminated. They claim the glues are "non-volatile and non-polluting".

The post on furniture contains a longer list of companies making solid wood beds (with solid woods slats) and non-toxic finishes.




How to Prevent Mould in Mattresses 




In any house or trailer, tiny or big, make sure your mattress can breathe underneath (slats or box springs are used for a reason). Only certain types of beds like an air mattress may be able to go straight on the floor.

When building a tiny house, find a way to incorporate slats under your bed. I see too many tiny houses with the mattress on a solid floor. This is not a good solution if you want your bed to stay mould-free. This is my loft on the left. The slats are built right into the loft. It works great!

When camping I do think a waterproof cover is the best idea, in a trailer you may be able to use something simple this hypervent for airflow, though I have heard that that is not enough airflow in many situations.


Disclosure:  As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the Amazon links.

Cargo Trailer Conversion

Converting a Cargo Trailer into a Travel Trailer

Part 1: Getting it up and Running
My current project
I'm converting a small cargo trailer into a tiny trailer that can be used for sleeping and living. In the end, this model is only useful as a portable kitchen and bath. Other models are sturdier and may work better as insulated conversions.

The cargo trailer is a TNT brand DBL 'A' 6x12, White, 12" extra height making it about 7 ft high on the inside. The extra height is well worth it I think for a sense of space. Side and roof vent (side vents are so small that they bring in very little air. The roof vent can only be wide open if it's not raining). RV door lock that locks from the inside (vital) and barn doors that lock from the outside (easier to handle than the ramp door). You may want to move the lock to the inside when living in it. Front and roof are curved in this one.

This post contains affiliate links.

Costs in Canadian Dollars:

$6100 cost of trailer
$3600 cost of renos at trailer shop - metal floors, install window, take out plywood (much cheaper, and probably faster if you have the factory do these.)
$1500 cost of insulation
Labour for insulation and vapour barrier, foil and glue - lost track
$1300 Electrical (+ $185 for CSA inspection and approval - allowing me to legally park the trailer in Canada)

I have seen better prices in the US, you can go smaller and get a better price, but for me 6x12 is the minimum amount of space needed to make a happy little home.

Joey was able to do this for $7000 with the factory doing most of the work. In the Facebook group Mold Avoiders on the Road you can see people having smaller trailers renovated for under $4000.


Necessary Renovations:
Dreaded plywood
between frame and
skin
Remove plywood.

Install window - 24 x 30 vinyl awning style to stay open even during the rain (you're going to need air in such a small space). It’s vertical so that the framing did not need to be cut. I do not find the hard vinyl has a smell but you can use aluminum. I wish I had put in two as it's nice to have windows. One does bring in plenty of light though, along with the vent on the roof. You can look for an RV window or you can use a tempered glass house window and reinforce the framing around it.

Install metal flooring 3/16 hot roll plate steel flooring, 1000 for the metal + welding. See this thread for an in-depth discussion on what type of metal to use.

Electrical work - 30 amp panel with a campground plug and 4 outlets inside. You may be able to make do with fewer outlets but the electrician wanted a dedicated outlet for the fridge and one for the heater. Then I have one near the bed for computer etc, and there is one up high to string up a light and run any kitchen appliances.

My electrical
Have these renos done by the factory and not after you buy it. This was a huge mistake that costs me a lot of money and didn’t save me any time like I thought it would. I should have known better as I had read Joey's conversion story (highly recommend reading that for another version of a conversion and some ideas on what you might want to add. I disagree that foam doesn't provide a lot of protection from the cold and heat. 2 inches of XPS is R-10, that is really good). How long it will take to customise one depends on the brand, the factory and the time of year. Add 2-3 weeks on to their estimate.

The back door in mine has structural plywood so that still has to be removed and needed metal reinforcements. The front end had plywood between the frame and the skin which was a major pain to remove. Look for a brand that does not have these two issues and you will save a lot of money.

If you want to do it yourself check out this thread (you have to sign up). Watching someone's account of doing it herself is well worth it. You will see tips on taking out the plywood and choosing a metal for the floor.


Do the Walls Need Reinforcement?

A big question with cargo trailers is if you need wall reinforcement when you remove the plywood. There are two answers to this. The first is that it depends on the brand, some brands will tell you that their trailer is good to go with no plywood, these have thicker frames like the steel CM trailers. Or some companies can customise it with thicker frames. See pictures below.

The second answer is that the companies might say they are not strong enough but people leave it un-reinforced anyway. Erik Johnson, me and two other mould avoiders have taken out the plywood and not added anything that would replace it structurally. Mine started leaking and the company that sold it to me claims that the reason it leaked is because the plywood was taken out and this means there is less stability and it's easy for pieces to come apart and caulking to come loose. I have braced mine since.

If they won't customise it without plywood, remove that part yourself and reinforce it (or don't) yourself.

The first picture is a customised trailer reinforced with aluminum frames. Very robust. If you look closely you can see tape between the frame and the exterior, a mould risk.

The second picture is a CM all steel trailer with a robust steel frame, the frame is standard and the company does not recommend reinforcement.

The third picture is a standard frame, with plywood removed. Though it's not reinforced the owner is doing just fine with moving it around frequently. The brand is Victory.

This picture is my trailer it has the least robust frame of the bunch, while the seller advised that it could be reinforced for longer trips (he told me this after the insulation was up). I have now braced/added strapping.








Toxicity of a New Cargo Trailer:

A cargo trailer smells much stronger than someone might anticipate a new metal box to smell. An extreme avoider in a hot climate would leave it sit for about a year before using. I have seen two people who have turned around and sold them soon after buying due to the strong smell. Mine is now a year old and not totally offgassed.

The smell comes mostly from the body of the trailer. It is a glue smell and may also be oils on the metal. There are many other parts that are non-metal (differ slightly between brands) that may include:

Caulk of different types, double-sided tape (you do not want to buy a cargo trailer with tape in the frame - this is a mould risk), plastic on the back of the RV door, plastic and glue (very smelly) in the vents to the point that you will likely not be able to use these vents for air, rubber and foam (glued on) can be found around the RV door, around the barn doors, and possibly around the window on some models, there may be tape holding up wiring, there is the usual plastic coating on the wiring, plastic light and light switch may be included, there may be spray paint on wiring, there may be caps on bolts, screen on top vent, there is also exterior paint which some people have said they are offgassing but I could not pick up a smell on. In such a small space there are also the tires on the outside to consider - on a hot day you will smell these. Rustproofing chemicals may also be added to the frame. (Thanks to Madonna Ramp for some of these materials from other brands).

A lot of this can be covered and you can see in mine that it is almost completely sealed up. If you buy one and it smells strong, give it time and/or seal it up like I did mine.

Every trailer takes time to offgas. Someone was able to get the company Mirage to build without glue or caulk, but she was not able to tolerate the trailer brand new. I would not recommend leaving out glue and caulk.

Buying a Used Cargo Trailer: 

I did not see any used cargo trailers in my area when I was looking but you can sometimes find these. You would want to know what it was used for. Look for gunk and rust that will accumulate at the bottom around the frame.

Building out the Interior - How Mine was Done (The Second Time)
XPS with Great Stuff
  • XPS Owens Corning Foam 2 inches on walls and floor (you can also use polyiso, the most well tolerated foam, or EPS which is not a vapour barrier on its own but is usually faced with foil or plastic). 2 inches XPS is R-10. If you are going to a climate that is extremely cold, add another layer of foam - polyiso or XPS on the inside until you get a high enough R-value for your climate. The reason I chose XPS is that is has a high R-value and it doesn't lose its R-value in very cold weather like polyiso does. I also could not find polyiso in my town. 
  • 1 inch Foil backed EPS on ceiling (because I needed something thin enough and flexible enough to be curved on the ceiling) (Note: This is backwards, there should be more insulation on the roof but I wanted the roof to stay curved and the insulation to stay between the frame so I kept it simple.). The brand was R-Tech but I can't find a link for this. I can add another layer of 1-inch foam if it gets too cold.
  • Great Stuff spray foam should be placed behind the foam and on the gaps of the rigid foam (airtight so no moisture gets behind the foam). There is one for small gaps and one for larger gaps you will need some of each. This then needs to be braced and riveted to the structure which is hard to do in many types of cargo trailers and I would not recommend these standard brands like the one I bought. 
  • A Fantastic Fan in the roof vent would be helpful for ventilation, drawing air out of the top will draw it in the window and turn over a lot of air. The fans also help with humidity. This has to be wired in with the electrical.

There is a rumour that spray foam will crumble with movement in a trailer but speaking with the company Great Stuff and some folks who have taken apart trailers they have not seen this be a problem.

Here is a video of where the trailer is now (in progress) - hard to show in photos:



EMFs:

All this metal and foil did not stop wifi or cell phone reception - it lowered my wifi connection only slightly. If you are concerned about EMFs consult with an EMF specialist and test out a metal structure before buying. In theory, it is a Faraday Cage that blocks out some external sources of EMFs and may intensify what is on the inside.

Fixing the leaks

My TNT Mirage Trailer has a number of poorly built aspects. The company took no responsibility for this and the leaks.

What has to be fixed on this model or checked on any model: The back doors were leaking, the top sil needed caulking, the door seals were not done right, the doors were bulging at points, bending the doors and adding gaps for leaks. The front diamond plate had nothing behind it, it was a negative lap - a poor design, the front wall should come all the way down. The front plastic cap on the top roof is also a negative lap. Vertical seams have the ability to let in water in a big storm or when driving it in the rain. Always check windows, doors, and any openings. Screws should be caulked as well. Look for a well done roof design. This roof design is good. I have seen custom designs with vulnerable roof seams.

Aggressively hose test this before adding insulation and know where the weak points are. After moving it is when things are most likely to come open.

When recaulking metal parts, attempt to open things up and get caulking between parts and not just over the seams.

These trailers are difficult and I would not attempt insulation in this style/brand again.



Erik Johnson's Cargo Trailer (MECU):

Erik's story
Erik is the pioneer of cargo trailer living. He called his trailer and camper MECUs (Mobile Environmental Containment Unit). Erik used EPS foam without flame retardants. I don't know how he sourced this but I would think this is the kind used for packing, not insulation. In Erik's trailer, he left a gap (like I did at first) between the foam and the exterior. He put in weep holes at the bottom in case condensation did find its way to the back. Some trailer like mine come with weep hole. He has said that there has not been any condensation at the back and he has had this for more than a decade. I put the insulation in front of the frame which created a space naturally behind it (though my floors and ceiling have no space).

This method did not work for me, major condensation formed behind the walls and I don't know anyone that was able to get this to work.

Here is a video of his camper which is done like his cargo.

Other Trailer Options:

You can build out the interior as much or as little as you like.
  • You could add batteries but consider how long these will last you away from plug-in power.
  • You could add solar panels but this doesn't get you a lot of power, it may be easier to just buy a solar kit that is portable that is made for camping.
  • If showering in another building, campsite bathroom, or outdoor shower is not an option for you, you could install basic plumbing. You would want to avoid tanks and have very simple plumbing that goes directly out to a bucket or pipes out into a grey water system. You will have to make sure you are following the rules with grey water here. I want to avoid all cooking, showering, and clothes drying inside to keep humidity down.
  • Options for outdoor showers include simple bucket showers, passive solar shower (that one is PVC-free, unlike most of them), active portable hot water shower (this one comes recommended by mould avoiders), or an outdoor tub big enough to bathe in. A privacy tent can be used to shower outside or set up a toilet outside. You can also DIY and set up something simple like wrap house wrap around 3 trees, or tie string around 3 trees and the string holds up shower curtains.

Finishing the Interior:
    WALLS: I was going to tack up these posters and some regular wallpaper. It is way too humid in here to put wallpaper though. I think that is unlikely to work in almost every climate. I am not eager to cover my walls with metal panels or plywood because I want everything to be simple and easily accessible. Other options for the wall: the grey side of housewrap, paint foil or metal walls with AFM metal paint, these polyethylene wall tiles (if you can tolerate the glue), seal everything with shellac and then paint over, or, other plastics made for RV/vans tacked or taped up. I will be using plastic RV panels.


Marmoleum from www.forbo.com

FLOORS: For now I’m using these mats on the floor temporarily. They smell like straw. I am currently offgassing Marmoleum (takes one month in sun to offgas) but I don't like that there's a jute backing under the Marmoleum against the metal, that's a mold risk) and had considered Cali Bamboo Cork (not sure yet how long it takes to offgas, definitely much longer than Marmoleum). Note: Flooring I ruled out: Thermacork decorative cork the only cork I know of that is heat-pressed with nothing added - not good for floors. It flakes easily and won’t last long. Cork underlayment - I bought this and tested another one that claimed 0 VOC. It is going to need a lot of time to offgas despite these "0 VOC" polyurethane glues (not at all). A year later I have not offgassed the cork floorings (thought they were not out in the sun for a year).

Shellac

    BED: My original plan was to customise a locally made solid wood bed with storage underneath - the bed will be up about 2 feet and take up more than half the length of the trailer, creating a large storage space underneath. I would like it to be made partially of Purebond plywood but even that needs to offgas, so I am planning a solid wood bed instead. Cedar is the best bet for holding up to high humidity environments and not going mouldy, but pine should work as well. I will seal it with shellac to seal in as much of the wood smell as possible. (I will do a post just on shellac.) A metal bed frame would be a safer option. In the third try here I think I will go with a metal bed. 



If you have space, I like this organiser



Heating, Cooling, Lighting, Laundry:

  • I’m have this light bulb up (the cord smelled strong and offgassed in my car for a while but then was fine for me). I also like this little nightlight but it won't provide much light.
  • In the summer I will use a portable AC, I like this one for the level of offgassing. I throw them away every fall as they tend to go mouldy after one season or two and I have nowhere to store them. 
  • I’m using this to dry my clothes and I love it. I don't want to add humidity in the trailer so I am using it outside under cover. It works well even in humid and cold outdoor temperatures (and it's not as mini as it looks). I have used this successfully down to freezing. I have not tried it much before freezing but I'm still really happy with it. 

Kitchen:

  • I bought this fridge which needed a lot of offgassing outside including running it outside. This one smelled more than other brands I have tried like Danby. I like Walmart for fridges as well. 
  • I'm using this kitchen island which offgassed fairly quickly but you could use a metal version if you want to avoid wood (and wood sealers and glue). 
  • I offgasesd this cutting board pretty fast. I'm just posting that because I love it so much
  • Thrift shop bowls 
  • I’m using a pressure cooker to cook - you can make almost anything in this. If you use it outside or at least release the steam outside you will have very little or no added moisture to the trailer. You can get away with no other stove, oven or microwave. You just need an extension cord to use it outside.
  • I’m going to buy the travel Berkey for drinking water, there is no plumbing in the trailer. Berkey is ideal for well water and water from campsites if you are not buying water. 
Bedding: 

In a high humidity situation like a trailer, tent or other camping structure it's important to have a bed and bedding that will not go mouldy. My bed will be up on slats soon (right now I am turning the Thermarest over every few days - it went mouldy so it is crucial to get it off the ground onto slats). Cotton does not hold up well in high humidity, so I have used more mould resistant materials.



Consulting:

I am available for consulting to help customise a little "safe room" cargo trailer or custom made trailer. I can help with everything from choosing materials to managing the whole build. I also help you to decide between different housing options, from building a conventional house, tiny house, trailer to setting up tent camping. Here is my consulting page.


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