Cash little comfort to victims of toxic sofa

A COUPLE who were given open wounds by their "toxic" sofas are celebrating after a High Court ruling awarded them thousands of pounds in compensation.

William and Sandra Gillespie, of Mayfield, Midlothian, thought they were perfecting their first home together when they bought two leather sofas from Argos in early 2007.

But the 995 chocolate-brown Pia suite was among thousands containing sachets of the dangerous chemical dimethyl formamide (DMF). The chemical, inserted by Chinese manufacturers to stop the sofas going mouldy, turned to gas when the sachets were broken, causing seeping skin rashes.

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Construction manager Mr Gillespie, 39, said: "It started pretty much straight away. It was like being burned open – the skin peeled right off. The doctor said it was an allergic reaction, so we changed our washing soap, the shampoos, the carpets and even our double mattress, but we still had no idea what it was."

Eventually a dermatologist at the Royal Infirmary "burned" their skin closed using another chemical, silver nitrate.

Mrs Gillespie, 29, who has an MSc in biochemistry and is a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, said doctors did not refer them fast enough.

"They gave me 19 prescriptions," she said. "We were thinking, 'You don't know what's going on.'"

Even after this treatment the couple had the sofas at home until the story broke in September 2007. "A colleague showed me a story in a newspaper," said Mr Gillespie, "and I thought: 'That's me!' "

The chemical makes victims permanently sensitive to other chemicals and fabrics such as leather, which has affected Mrs Gillespie's career, making her nervous working in university laboratories.

"I always have to double-check what I am using at work" she said. "But mainly it was just embarrassing. When I was going to work my trousers would be completely wet from the seeping. I didn't know what people thought."

After their nine-month ordeal, the Gillespies are among 1,650 victims sharing a 20 million pot to be paid out by high street furniture firms including Argos and Homebase.

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The decision by Mr Justice MacDuff yesterday followed years of negotiation, and some 3,000 cases are still in dispute.

Individual sums have not been agreed but the Gillespies stand to be awarded between 1,175 and 9,000 each.

The couple said they were glad to see a resolution but it would not make up for their fear at the time.

"It wasn't a cheap exercise mentally, physically or financially," said Mr Gillespie.

"We got married and had our honeymoon in the Maldives. Sandra's confidence was shot, because she had these scars on her leg.

"There was this thing in the back of her mind that there would be someone staring."

The couple, who now have a 15-month-old daughter, Gabrielle Maria, said they were still frightened about the long-term effects of DMF. A study by the World Health Organisation in 1990 showed a link between exposure to the chemical and miscarriages.

"What if we have children in the future and it happens?" said Mr Gillespie. "These are things you never stop worrying about."

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Richard Langton, senior litigation partner at solicitors Russell Jones & Walker, who dealt with the group litigation, said: "We believe many sofas are still in use with DMF in them. Anyone who has not registered a claim yet should seek help."