An unexplained rash could be a sign that your couch is making you sick.
A toxic fungicide in imported furniture is behind an outbreak of chronic dermatitis, skin burns, eye irritation and breathing difficulties across the world. Medical experts here are warning consumers to watch for symptoms.
The international journal Allergy has confirmed what thousands of British and mainland European citizens have known for more than a year: new leather sofas imported from China are a hotbed of allergens.
Dimethyl fumarate, in the form of a fine, white crystalline powder, was found in sachets embedded in the furniture sourced to China. It is believed the body heat generated from sitting on a contaminated couch causes a toxic vapour to seep out.
Rosemary Nixon, from Melbourne's Skin and Cancer Foundation, said although there have been no reported cases in Australia, people may not have made a link between a skin outbreak and their couch.
"The rashes can be quite severe, this chemical is a really strong allergen," Dr Nixon said.
"It can make the skin itchy enough to prevent sleep, and cortisone creams and sometimes even cortisone tablets are needed to calm it down."
About 200,000 of the suspect couches have been imported by 15 furniture retailers in Britain alone and compensation for victims, some of whom required hospital treatment, could be in the tens of millions of dollars.
The European Union and British governments ordered a recall of all products containing dimethyl fumarate late last month.
An Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority spokesman said dimethyl fumarate was not registered for use here but given the unusual situation of the chemical being secreted in sachets built into imported furniture, it was unclear which authority would be required to investigate if the problem were identified. People who believe they may have been affected should contact consumer affairs bodies such as the NSW Office of Fair Trading.
Another toxic rash-producing chemical came under the microscope in the US last week, as its authorities reconsider whether to compel dry cleaners to phase out the hazardous air pollutant perchloroethylene.
"Perc" is used by the majority of Australian dry cleaners, despite alternatives that are safer for machine operators, whose higher incidence of cancer and neurological damage has been linked to the chemical. Consumers may suffer skin irritations from wearing clothes treated with perc.
Jim Janakis, of Blue & White Dry Cleaners in Crows Nest, switched to a safer, hydrocarbon alternative but he said the cost of $60,000 for each machine probably put it out of reach for many suburban operators.
The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme said it reassessed perchloroethylene in 2001 and concluded the risks to workers and the public were low.