March 5, 2010 (Miami Beach, Fla.) -- Your new sofa may be the last thing you suspect is causing that red rash on the back of your legs, but it could be the culprit.
Doctors say a chemical added into furniture shipments from China to prevent the growth of mold has been linked to severe rashes.
The chemical, dimethylfumate (DMF), can penetrate the fabric and subsequently clothing when a person sits on the furniture, says Joseph F. Fowler Jr., MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.
DMF is also used in the shipping of some clothing and shoes, Fowler says. And some people are very allergic to the preservative, he tells WebMD.
When they come into contact with DMF, susceptible individuals develop contact dermatitis, a rash that can occur anywhere on the body. Irritated skin becomes dry and chapped and eventually red, scaly, and inflamed.
At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology, Fowler described what he called "an epidemic of Chinese sofa and chair dermatitis."
Fowler said that the first five cases were reported in Europe in 2008.
"Since then, there have been a good 1,000 cases in Europe, maybe more," he says. Cases have also been reported in Canada.
In the U.S., there have been no published reports, although Fowler says he treated one man who developed contact dermatitis of the foot from a shoe that was contaminated with the chemical. The rash went away after the patient disposed of the offending footwear, he says.
Jenny J. Kim, MD, PhD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine, tells WebMD that Fowler's report is the first she has heard of the allergen.
Kim says she will start asking patients in whom she can't find a cause of rash about recent furniture purchases. "I'm going to start looking for [DMF allergies]," she says.
Fowler says DMF is "put into little packets, or sachets, that are then put in with furniture, clothing, and shoes to prevent mold during shipping."
As more U.S. doctors hear about DMF-contaminated furniture and clothing, "we'll be hearing about a lot more of these cases," he says.