Bad news for tanners

8 August 2008

In recent weeks, various chemicals companies have been announcing price increases and just when it looked as if things couldn't get much worse for Chinese tanners, an old story about toxic leather sofas made in China hit the headlines. While the events were old news, the newspaper coverage was new and a law firm is asking for people to come forward if they feel they have a legal claim for damages.

I must stress that it is not the leather that is toxic but the mis-use of an extremely powerful fungicide which appears to have caused the problem. The fungicide in question - dimethyl fumarate - was contained in sachets that were either placed in the structure of the sofas or in the separate cushions. The fungicide was not an additive to the leather. So although the Chinese tanner is not at fault, sales in Chinese-made leather sofas are likely to plummet. Leather sofas from China have been huge business in recent years and the fungicide has been introduced to the furniture to prevent the growth of mould during storage. Moreover, mud tends to stick and leather sofas from wherever could suffer from the same stigma. Italy's brand leader in the field, Natuzzi have also reported having a bad time lately, in common with other furniture manufacturers in Italy. According to Pasquale Natuzzi, in 2002 Natuzzi would receive $500 for a couch sold in the USA and those $500 were worth €533. In 2008 he gets only €317 for the same sale or 41% less than six years ago. The same furniture made in China today brings a gross revenue of 7%. When made in Brazil a sofa would generate a loss of 25% so Natuzzi says producing in that country is no longer profitable and he announced that he will close one plant and lay off 1,200 employees. When made in Italy the loss for a similar item has exploded to 39%. He said he could now only make a profit when producing in Rumania where a gross revenue of 20% is possible if the goods are sold within Europe. Returning to the issue of the fungicide, its extreme sensitizing risk was first brought to public attention by the ‘poison chair' incident, where 60 patients were diagnosed with allergic eczema. Dimethyl fumarate had been used as a mould inhibitor and the chairs were sold in 2006-2007 and produced by a Chinese manufacturer. More recently there have been problems with Chinese made sofas being sold in UK stores Land of Leather, Argos and DFS, among others. It first came to my attention last year and was taken up in February of this year by the UK television programme Watchdog. As a result of two stories on this issue posted on our website,, I received a telephone call from a lady who had found herself suffering a violent allergic reaction. She tried very hard to identify the cause but was very loath to consider her prized new black leather sofa which she had purchased from DFS. It was only by catching the tail end of the television programme that she realized where the problem lay. Within 36 hours the improvement in her skin condition was so marked she had to accept that the sofa was to blame. Her partner has been unaffected and only one of her two dogs suffered hair loss. She has joined the class action being conducted by Richard Langton of the law firm Russell Jones and Walker but has been trying the research the matter herself. DFS have now been in touch with her and write that while her sofa did come from China the supplier was not Linkwise and the fungicide was not introduced in sachet form. They buy from HTL, Singapore, who have been in business for thirty years and are one of the world's top three suppliers. The leather is from their own ISO 9002 certified tanneries in Singapore and they produce for DFS in purpose-built factories west of Shaghai. Neither HTL or DFS use anti-fungicidal chemicals as the sofas are not stored but made to order and shipped directly. HTL wrap their furniture and perforate the plastic bags to prevent condensation. They also add large silica gel bags to the containers to draw the moisture away. Despite this, there are a number of people in the class action suit who are reported to have bought their sofas from DFS. Which begs the question, where does the problem lie in these cases?

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