Foam Mattresses And Cushions: More Dangerous Than We Thought

Foam Mattresses And Cushions: More Dangerous Than We Thought post image

If you were worried about the flame retardants in mattresses made after 2007, you better sit down. Wait — don’t sit on your mattress if it is made of foam! A few weeks ago, Ian Urbina reported in the New York Times a news story that will curl your hair.

Toxic Glue is in Foam Mattresses and Cushions

This is a story about the workers employed at Royale Comfort Seating in North Carolina. There, they worked as gluers and were repeatedly exposed to what turned out to be an extremely toxic glue that is used in the manufacture of foam mattresses, cushions and pillows for sofa’s and chairs. The glue is used as an adhesive to hold together layers of foam.

It’s not the foam that is so toxic — although foam is made of many artificial chemicals — it’s the glue that is devastating.

Regrettable Substitution

In the 1990’s companies using the chlorofluorocarbons that were destroying the ozone later were forced by the EPA to switch to a greener substitute.  The chemical n-propyl bromide (nPB) — also called 1-bromopropane (1-BP) was used instead.  It turns out that nPB is much much worse than what it was supposed to replace — something referred to as regrettable substitution.

The EPA, in trying to protect the workers from the fumes of the chlorofluorocarbons, fostered the use of another, even more toxic substance.  Unintentionally, the effect of that action was that sellers of the chemical marketed  it as federally approved, “nonhazardous,” green and worker-friendly.

Not exactly the reality.

Company Negligence

After fairly short term exposure, (2 – 4 weeks) 7 workers had severe neurological problems that have caused them to be disabled. Many other workers also experience neurological problems with their feet and balance problems from inhaling the fumes. They experienced staggered gait, numb hands and feet and spinal pain.

The article discusses the problems with keeping up with safety restrictions while still trying to remain competitive with other companies — especially foreign competitors where restrictions and wages are much lower.

The workers also need to be considered — and this begs the question — is it better to have a job that is dangerous — or no job at all?

In 2005, when seven workers became seriously ill at one plant …Royale had to lay off 40 people, close the facility and spend $50,000 to move operations to another site and upgrade the ventilation there. OSHA found high levels of fumes in subsequent years because no one informed the company that fans and filters needed cleaning for ventilation to work properly, he said.

They didn’t know that you had to clean the filters and fans to keep it in good working order?

N-Propyl Bromide

According to Ian Urbina,

n-propyl bromide is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years.

This chemical is used to manufacture foam mattresses as well as cushions for sofa’s and chairs. It is ubiquitous in everyone’s home.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is known for it’s stringent regulations for safety on the job. However, most of their focus is for acute dangers. Sadly, there are more problems with the long term effects of theses chemicals on a person’s health and the OSHA regulations do not address safe exposure levels.

The Cost of Occupational Illness

According to Ian Urbina,

Occupational illnesses and injuries like Ms. Farley’s cost the American economy roughly $250 billion per year because of medical expenses and lost productivity, according to government data analyzed by J. Paul Leigh, an economist at the University of California, Davis, more than the cost of diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Roughly 40 percent of medical expenses from workplace hazards, or about $27 billion a year, is paid by public programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

The Cost to Quality of Life

One of the workers highlighted in this article calls herself damaged goods. She worked as a gluer and breathed in the fumes for five years. Along with other workers, she experienced severe pain and swelling in her feet to the point where she has difficulty walking and is in pain every day.

{her} doctors say that breathing them {fumes} in eventually ate away at her nerve endings, resulting in what she and her co-workers call “dead foot.”

In this day and age I thought workers were protected from things like this. It’s like the cigarette industry all over again — memo’s and warnings that were ignored and/or hidden. The obvious reason — nPB turns out to be inexpensive, strong, fast-drying and, best of all, unregulated.

When it was first marketed , the salesmen would say

It’s so safe you can eat it.

How Does This Translate To the Foam in a Mattress?

Of course the foam in a mattress or a cushion is not going to be giving off the type of fumes these workers were exposed to. And supporters of foam mattresses may say that once the glue is dried it is inert and the polyurethane used in foam is inert.

However, it has definitely been established that polyurethane foam emits formaldehyde (there are patents out for ways to alleviate this) and we all know that formaldehyde is highly toxic. In 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure.

Additionally, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.

What About Crib Mattresses?

As with any product, the higher the quality, the more expensive. However, the health of your baby should also come to mind in any decisions made about which mattress to buy.

The cheapest crib mattresses are of course foam. As stated above, foam can be cheaply put together with cheap glue. The covering of foam mattresses are usually made of vinyl, another material that off gases toxic fumes.

They make inner spring crib mattresses which are better, but these still may have an inner core of foam. The highest quality crib mattress would be certified organic cotton with wool. These would be flame resistant from the wool and may not have any toxic flame retardant chemicals.

This is an item that I would research well before purchasing. There is much information on line about what to look for in a crib mattress to protect your baby — some folks use a mattress cover that prevents any fumes from reaching baby.  Read more about making the crib mattress baby safe here.

Polyurethane Foam

Polyurethane foam has a track record of toxicity. Foam mattresses are made from plastic foam products and polyesters, with the obligatory mix of flame-retardant chemicals added. Additionally, other chemicals in this type of mattress most often cited as potential sources of concern are pesticides, herbicides, stain-resistant solvents, the various substances in synthetic fibers, and formaldehyde. This combination may cause breathing, skin, and asthmatic reactions.

Since you are in bed about 1/3 of each 24 hour period, you are getting exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. Even if they are not nearly as strong as what the workers in the cushion factory are exposed to — low exposures over time have not been studied.

Common sense (not paranoia, as some would like to view this) dictates that this can’t be good. I need to buy my son a new mattress soon. It will definitely NOT have any type of foam. What about you? Leave a comment and let me know.


This post is shared at: Mommy Club, Real Food Wednesday, Thank Your Body

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Leave a Comment

  • Stephanie N May 15, 2013, 12:20 am

    Thanks for the article. I think I have a good mattress, but pretty sure that my kids are on one of the newer mattresses, so might need to look into getting them something else.

    Do you know anything about the All Natural Latex Mattresses available from Habitat Furnishings? This is their website:

    This is what I have in my room, so hoping it’s safe and truly chemical free like they say on their site.

    • Jill May 15, 2013, 8:32 am

      @ Stephanie,
      Many people are happy with their organic latex mattress — However if you have a latex allergy you might want something else.

  • Heather Kallimani May 15, 2013, 8:34 am

    This was great! It’s amazing how the government will ban a chemical only to have the companies replace it with something more dangerous. Kind of like BPA getting replaced with BPS.

  • Lisa May 15, 2013, 9:45 am

    Interesting and scary! To me, this is another great reason to buy only as much as you need so that those poor workers aren’t being exposed to chemicals just to satisfy consumer demands for more stuff.

    We wrap our crib mattresses, but I also want to point out that most pack & play mattresses are made of polyurethane foam, so if you wrap your baby’s sleeping surfaces, don’t forget that one!!!

  • Sam May 15, 2013, 11:07 am

    truly ugly
    yet another business that we can reignite in a responsible way, jobs and safe products
    I see ball jars advertised – coated with chemical sprays inside and out
    will be awhile before someone reports on that
    same story – regrettable substitutions – where heat would have done it

    • rachel May 28, 2013, 8:38 pm

      Ball jars? For canning? What is the purpose of spraying inside and out with chemicals?

  • Heather@Mommypotamus May 15, 2013, 4:33 pm

    How sad that it only took 2-4 weeks for neurological problems to show up and yet it’s still being used today. Thanks for writing this, Jill!

  • Jill May 16, 2013, 8:24 am

    Does anyone know good sources of SAFE mattresses and cushions/furniture they have researched that can be shared here? This is so discouraging to realize that just about everything we sit and lie on in our house is probably toxic, so I’m really curious about what the alternatives are and just as importantly, where to find them!

  • Sherri @The Well Floured Kitchen May 20, 2013, 2:23 pm

    I went crazy the last time we had to buy a mattress for our youngest. Unfortunately there was a price point we needed to stay at. I ended up with an Ikea mattress- because they use european standards which are a little better (this was a few years ago). Another option I considered was buying an organic cover to put over a regular mattress. Worst case scenario I would think you could off gas the mattress outside for a bit?

    • Jill May 20, 2013, 7:05 pm

      Hi Sheri,
      I know, I was going crazy trying to decide what to buy for my son just recently. I think a lot of people do buy a wrap for the mattress and feel OK about that.

  • Andi May 28, 2013, 11:55 pm

    We need a new mattress and I’m trying to figure out what is safest that will still be comfortable. Currently we sleep on a pillowtop mattress that we put a “novaform” mattress topper on. You know the memory foam super squishy ones. It is wonderful for my back and neck issues, but has me worried about the potential toxicity for us. We pondered getting a mattress that was all memory foam, but now I’m stumped. Any idea how bad the memory foam is? and if it would do any good to cover it with a good mattress pad. Or, a cushy alternative mattress? Thanks for posting this article!

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    We have a memory foam mattress, and have had it for nine years. I bought it becase of my husbands back and knees, but as he sweats so much I am worried about the possibility of the heat and sweat from the mattress causing poisonous fumes. Is this possible.

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