If you’ve been reading the news lately, you’re well aware of the numerous chemicals of concern we’re exposed to every day, in our water, air, food, workplaces, and homes. One of the difficulties we face in making the best decisions for our health is a lack of information about what different products contain and their potential health impacts.
Sadly, few regulations exist that require manufacturers to disclose the ingredients in their products or to prove their safety. A new study out from the nonprofit organization MADE SAFE aims to take some of the mystery out of one consumer product virtually all of us use daily (or nightly): our mattress.
Most people shopping for mattresses look at two primary features: comfort and price. Founder of MADE SAFE Amy Ziff notes that few consumers ask a far more important question: What’s actually in our mattresses?
“There’s so much stuff that goes into what we use on a daily basis and we don’t ask where did this come from,” Ziff explains. “What’s the provenance? What’s it made of?”
MADE SAFE’s new report, Detox Your Sleep, aims to supply this missing information. Researchers reviewed the scientific literature on the health effects of common mattress materials, including polyurethane foam. Here’s what they found.
What’s in a Foam Mattress?
Flexible polyurethane and memory foam mattresses are both made from polyurethane foam, but with different combinations of base materials and additives. According to MADE SAFE, foam mattresses can include the following substances:
Added to polyurethane foam to reduce flammability, these include polybrominated diphenyl ethers, organophosphorus and halogenated flame retardants, and chlorinated tris, which was previously banned from children’s pajamas because of safety concerns. Flame retardants have been linked to a number of health concerns, including endocrine disruption, lower IQ, hyperactivity, altered sexual development, fertility issues, thyroid dysfunction, and cancer.
When mixed with water and surfactants, isocyanates form the building blocks of foam. The most commonly used isocyanates are hydrocarbon compounds made from crude oil or natural gas. Exposure has been linked to respiratory diseases, skin irritations, and irritation of the mucous membranes.
Volatile Organic Compounds
VOCs are compounds that can easily become vapors or gases. Not only can polyurethane foam mattresses contain VOCs, they can also absorb VOCs from other products in the home. When concentrations in the air decrease, the VOCs stored in foam mattresses will return to the air.
Present in some polyesther fibers, antimony trioxide is classified as possibly carcinogenic and has been shown to migrate to sweat and saliva from fabric.
Linked to respiratory irritation and dizziness, acetone is also a skin and eye irritant.
Pthalates, liquid carbon dioxide, and urethane grade methylene chloride can also be present in polyurethane foam mattresses, along with a variety of other chemicals and substances that have endocrine disrupting and other health effects.
Why Chemicals in Mattresses Could Be Dangerous
Reviewing the science of what our bodies do during sleep, study authors note that a critical function of sleep is repairing and removing harmful compounds from our bodies, especially our brains. Together with the information on chemicals in common bedding materials, Ziff says, researchers realized that “We need to have this wake up call on what could be in these things that we use each and every day.”
Though most people don’t give their mattresses much thought, the report suggests we all ought to look a lot harder at what we’re sleeping on. “The bed,” Ziff warns, “could have a major impact to your health and wellbeing.”
Of particular concern are infants and children under six, who spend an even greater percentage of their lives sleeping. “Babies breathe twice as many times per minute as the average adult, making them then more vulnerable to chemicals that would be in their surroundings,” Ziff says. This period in a child’s life is considered a “critical window of development,” when young children experience an especially rapid rate of growth, and the neurological and immune systems take shape.
“If you have a very specific exposure to a certain kind of chemical during that window of development, it can impede it or alter it or lead to some change… years down the line,” Ziff says.
Studies have demonstrated that early life exposures to certain chemicals may lower IQ, affect hormonal disorders, and increase the risk of diseases like cancer. For this reason, making infants’ and children’s sleeping rooms as free of these toxicants as possible is especially important.
Easier said than done, say study authors. “On the whole, the mattress industry offers little transparency into the materials and processes used in manufacturing conventional mattresses. Mattresses do bear labels, but they often contain jargon and don’t list every material and chemical used in the project.”
Common adhesives and antimicrobial additives are additional sources of chemical exposure and rarely get listed on mattress labels. And even if ingredients did appear on labels, how many consumers would understand the chemical terms or know to research their health effects?
The study also examined other bedding materials and found that polyester ticking, pillow fill, and finishes on sheets likewise contained compounds linked to respiratory problems and cancer. Again, few people shopping for these products realize that manufacturers are allowed to include ingredients that may be hazardous to our health.
Choosing an Eco friendly, Non Toxic Mattress
The idea that our mattresses may contribute to cancer risk and hormonal problems is distressing, to say the least. However, Ziff cautions, “You don’t have to panic” if you discover you’ve been sleeping for years on a mattress containing these chemicals. But when you decide to replace your mattress, Ziff hopes this study can make you better equipped to choose the least harmful bedding on the market.
After reviewing the draft report, consulting scientist Summer Streets, an environmental chemist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, commented that this “thoroughly-researched and well-constructed report … will make choosing safer bedding a much easier task.”
When naturally sourced, latex provides a safe alternative to foam.
Using MADE SAFE’s extensive databases of chemicals and consulting with chemists and toxicologists, study authors identified preferred non toxic mattress materials. Though only a few makers of mattresses and bedding have sought MADE SAFE certification, a number of mattresses on the market are made with components that get the green light from MADE SAFE.
So which mattresses and bedding materials do they recommend?
Non Toxic Mattress Materials
Wool: Naturally flame-resistant, wool also helps regulate body temperature by effectively circulating air internally.
Organic cotton: Less flammable than foam, cotton can meet federal flammability standards without added flame retardants.
Natural latex: Natural latex isn’t the same as synthetic latex. Synthetic latex is derived from petroleum, which can contain many of the chemicals listed above. Natural latex is tapped from trees. When naturally sourced, latex provides a safe alternative to foam. However, a small percentage of people are allergic to latex. For this reason, it’s best to avoid latex when buying a mattress for a newborn baby.
Stitching vs. adhesives: Mattresses with sewn components are a safer alternative to those glued together with chemical adhesives.
Non Toxic Bedding Materials
Organic cotton: Sheets made from organic cotton don’t contain pesticides or other harmful chemicals.
Wool: Many mattress pads and comforters are made from polyesther, acrylic, or nylon. Wool alternatives provide the same level of comfort, without the exposure. Pillows and blankets should also be made of these benign materials.
Recommended Mattress Brands
The following companies have sought out MADE SAFE certification and received certification based on all components:
Mattress and Bedding Materials to Avoid
MADE SAFE recommends avoiding the following materials in mattresses and bedding:
Synthetic foam: The polyurethane foam in foam mattresses has been found to contain flame retardants isocyanates, VOCs, methylene chloride, and acetone. Together these chemicals have been linked to a broad array of effects, including lower IQ, altered sexual development, and cancer.
Polyesther: Often used as mattress ticking, polyesther contains endocrine disrupting chemicals.
Adhesives: One common adhesive is linked to neurological effects, eye and respiratory irritation, dizziness, headaches, and more.
Waterproofing: Waterproof baby matteresses usually contain vinyl, along with pthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Pthalates are linked to reduced fertility in boys and girls, along with endocrine disruption and problems with thyroid function. VOCs are linked to poor respiratory health, increased asthma and risk of pulmonary infections.
“Wrinkle-free” fabrics: Most commonly found in sheets, ‘wrinkle-free’ or ‘no-iron’ fabrics may contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
Antibacterial and antimicrobial compounds: These may contain triclosan, an endocrine-distrupting chemical, and silver nanoparticles.
Stain repellants: Many stain repellants are made from poly and perfluoralky substances, which have a number of toxic effects. Avoid anything labelled “stain resistant” or “stain repellant.”
Reducing Your Family’s Toxic Load
MADE SAFE’s mission is to change the way products are made in this country to ultimately eliminate the use of toxic chemicals altogether. Says Ziff: “We hope one day to work ourselves out of existence – when ultimately, every product on shelves is made with safe ingredients.”
Until then, knowing to ask careful questions about what’s gone into the things you bring into your home, from your mattress to your cleaners, can go a long way to reducing your family’s toxic load.