Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the chemical hazards posed by commercial mattresses. After all, they look so clean and pretty in showroom displays, so why should one question their safety? Besides, companies wouldn't be allowed to sell them if they weren't safe, right? Ironically, it is our government’s attempt to make mattresses “safer” that has led to the widespread use of a variety of potentially hazardous chemicals which consumers of all ages are involuntarily exposed to, through respiration and skin contact, while sleeping for hours daily on their mattresses.
A new law going into effect nationwide in July 2007 requires mattress manufacturers to meet an even more stringent flammability standard.1 This is forcing commercial mattress manufacturers to use even more potentially toxic fire-retardant chemicals on their mattresses. There are no labeling requirements with this new law, and many manufacturers make no claims of their beds being fireproof, according to Mark Strobel, long-time mattress manufacturer, founder of the online educational resource PeopleForCleanBeds.org, and author of the report entitled:“Doctors Oppose New Law that Puts Poisonous Chemicals in All Our Mattresses.”2 It is imperative for health conscious individuals to become informed about these chemicals and take the steps necessary to limit their exposure.
Since the rise of the petroleum industry following World War II, most commercial mattresses have been made with petroleum-based, synthetic materials.Â One such material is polyurethane foam, used for more than three decades in U.S. manufacturing of mattresses, pillows, and upholstered furniture. Untreated polyurethane foam is so flammable that firefighters have compared it to gasoline, according to G. Wayne Miller and Peter B. Lord, authors of â€śFatal Foam: Itâ€™s Just About Everywhere.â€ť3 This report was written in 2003 after the polyurethane foam used for soundproofing around a Rhode Island nightclub stage caught fire, killing 100 people.
To combat this flammability hazard, mattress manufacturers have used industrial fire-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) on mattresses for many years. These chemicals are the cheapest and easiest way for them to conform to the U.S. government’s mattress flammability standards. While doing so has helped to reduce potential fire hazard, studies are only beginning to reveal the scope of possible health risks presented by long-term exposure to PBDEs and other fire-retardant chemicals.
Parents of newborns and young adolescents should be particularly concerned, since these children spend such a large percentage of their days sleeping.Â The National Academy of Sciences reports that young children may be uniquely sensitive to chemical and pesticide residues because of their rapid tissue growth and development.Â Well known pediatrician Alan Greene warns on his web site that animal studies suggest certain PBDEs can affect memory, learning, pubertal development and even sperm counts. Â Dr. Greene reports that PBDEs have been found in household dust, the most likely source being household furnishings such as mattresses, upholstered furniture and carpet.4 Â A study released in September 2003 by the Environmental Working Group found unexpectedly high levels of bromine-based flame-retardant chemicals in the breast milk of U.S.women.5 According to the report, animal studies show that fetal exposure to even minute doses of brominated fire retardants at critical points in development can cause deficits in sensory and motor skills as well as hearing. These PBDEs are bio-accumulative, building up in people’s bodies over a lifetime. The most toxic PBDEs have already been banned by the European Union,says EWG, but continue to be used in the U.S.Â
However, PBDEs are not the only potentially harmful chemicals being used in the commercial mattress industry. Long-time mattress manufacturer Mark Strobel says that two other fire-retardant chemicals being used to meet the new 2007 flammability requirement are antimony and boric acid. His site documents how antimony closely resembles arsenic and presents a number of possible health risks, including heart damage and cancer, as levels build up in the body.6
The other chemical, boric acid, is a poisonous pesticide commonly used to kill roaches, ants, and fleas.Â Current government regulations permit the cotton batting of mattresses, including crib mattresses, to be treated with boric acid. According to Strobel, the boric acid used to treat mattresses, is not chemically bound and exists as a loose dust mixed with the cotton fibers. He estimates that a queen size mattress which says 39% Treated Cotton on its tag could have 1.5 lbs. of boric acid in its batting and a crib mattress could have .5 lbs.7
According to PeopleforCleanBeds.org, petroleum-based foams can also contain Â chemical additives such as formaldehyde, silicon and other established toxic and, sometimes suspected carcinogenic chemicals. Â
People spend about a third of their lives sleeping.Â Sleep is supposed to be a healing, restorative period for the body, not a source of chemical exposure. Fortunately, consumers now have an alternative. The natural and organic health food movement has now crossed over to the bedroom, allowing parents and non-parents alike to choose a â€ścleanerâ€ť, nontoxic sleep environment that is an essential part of a healthier lifestyle. They are especially beneficial for allergy sufferers and chemically sensitive people, as well as pregnant women, babies, and young children.
Dr. Susan Toron, D.C. writes:
I was forced to purchase an organic cotton bed for my son after learning he was being poisoned by the chemicals in his mattress.Â In testing, he had 3x the level of antimony in his system, which was causing significant health and behavior problems (he was 4 at the time).Â Within 6 months of getting him out of the chemical bed and into the organic one, his antimony levels went back to normal, and his health and behavior problems stopped.8
Natural and organic mattresses for babies through adults are now available for prices comparable to commercial mattresses. They look like the commercial mattresses with which everyone is familiar, only they are made with such materials as organically grown cotton, wool, and 100% natural latex foam rubber, rather than petroleum-based materials.Â Natural fibers such as cotton and wool that are used in alternative mattresses allow more â€śbreathabilityâ€ť than synthetic fibers. Organic wool is a natural insulator in the winter and wicks moisture in the summer.Â The wool used by most manufacturers of such mattresses also meets the current federal flame retardant standard without the use of fire-retardant chemicals. Natural and organic mattresses which do not meet the federal flame retardant standard will require a doctor’s prescription starting July 1, 2007.
Natural and organic mattress choices include (1) traditional innerspring designs with organic cotton and wool batting,Â Â (2) natural rubber mattresses that provide comfort and support without innersprings, (3) combinations of innersprings with natural rubber, (4) vegan/custom mattresses and (5) natural and organic futons. Different styles provide different benefits for which each consumer may have a preference, which can best be determined by one trying them in person before making such an important purchase.