In May 2008, the BBC Watchdog programme alerted viewers that a number of people were reporting itches, blisters, burns and rashes after buying imported Chinese leather sofas.
The reason: sachets containing the chemical dimethyl fumarate (DMF) had been used by Chinese manufacturer Linkwise to prevent mould from growing on their leather sofas during transportation and storage.
Unfortunately, the chemical, which is sometimes used as a fungicide, led to severe allergic reactions in some people using the sofas.
Tests have shown that DMF can cause severe eczema, a term referring to a range of skin conditions which are difficult to treat. The allergic reactions occur when the substance warms up.
Consultant dermatologist Dr Sandra Winhoven explained the condition at the time: ‘The substance that’s causing the sofa dermatitis outbreak is a fungicide, and this fungicide has a very low vapour point. So when it gets warm, more of it gets released.’ As a result, the summer months led to higher numbers of allergic reactions.
Symptoms of eczema
Eczema, which is sometimes known as dermatitis, can refer to a range of unpleasant and distressing symptoms including itching, blistering, redness, swelling, dryness, crusting, flaking, cracking, oozing and bleeding of the skin. These symptoms can be very damaging to a person’s quality of life, and some of the sofa rash sufferers reported symptoms of depression as a result.
With up to 50,000 households having been sold a contaminated sofa, and many people suffering from increasingly severe reactions, sufferers were often unaware that the reaction they were experiencing was connected to their sofa.
Some sufferers even unwittingly aggravated their injuries by staying at home to recover from their symptoms, thereby further increasing their contact with the problem sofa.
How the stores reacted
The sofas were sold by Argos, Land of Leather and Walmsley Furnishing. After learning of the problem with their sofas, the shops selling them responded in different ways. According to a Daily Mail report from June 21, 2008, Argos, who had sold the most contaminated sofas, withdrew the sofas from their shops and notified buyers, contacting them to arrange collection of the products.
Land of Leather, meanwhile, withdrew the sofas but was criticised for not notifying buyers, while Walmsley said they had removed the sachets from sofas they sold after they learned of the issue, though they also did not recall the sofas which had already been sold, as Argos had done.
Claiming compensation for sofa rash
In the UK’s largest ever consumer injury claim, thousands claimed for compensation against the stores where they bought their sofas. Compensation is expected to total up to £10m for this initial class action.
Along with the thousands already claiming compensation, an estimated tens of thousands could have suffered or still be suffering from burns which have not yet been linked to their sofas. These cases could lead to further claims for compensation.
If you have been affected by a ‘toxic’ sofa and experienced skin problems as a result, you could be entitled to claim compensation for your injuries and money lost due to time off work.