As a chiropractor I frequently get asked for recommendations about a mattress. Usually it is in relationship to someone’s back pain. The usual advice is to get a mattress that is firm but not rock hard, especially if you are a small person. Other good options include a pillow top that may or may not be attached to the mattress to provide some cushioning over a firm base. However, there is another more critical issue with a new mattress that needs to be addressed.
A Blow Torch Will Not Set a New Mattress on Fire
In 2007 a new law requiring all mattresses to be treated with a flame retardant was passed. Generally this involves chemicals sprayed onto the layers inside the mattress, or a barrier that is treated with chemicals — all close to the surface of the mattress. This treatment involves a chemical called polybrominated diphenyl ether or PBDE and it does not have to be mentioned on the label. Here we go again with laws designed to keep the consumer in the dark.
This chemical is so toxic it has been banned in Canada and Europe. It accumulates in the body and has been associated with brain and reproductive damage, decreased sperm quality, thyroid problems and even cancer at high levels. Worse, it is in many everyday products.
Mattresses are required to withstand a two foot wide blowtorch open flame for 70 seconds. Sure, we want to protect against fire, but doesn’t that seem a bit like overkill?
The most common way to start a mattress fire is clearly by smoking in bed. So, because some people are idiots the rest of us are now being suffocated with chemicals when we sleep.
PBDE is Pervasive in the Home
It is not only in mattresses, but also in furniture and other household products. We are exposed to it everyday and if you have a mattress that has been treated with PBDE you are breathing it in all night.
Other flame-retardant chemicals currently approved for use in mattresses include:
• Boric acid — the least of the problem — but it is a respiratory irritant used to kill insects
• Antimony — a metal that is as toxic as mercury if not more so
• Formaldehyde — implicated in cancer
Someone I Know Got Very Sick From Her Mattress
It’s one thing to talk about how toxic something can be — but quite another to experience it for yourself or know someone that has had a problem. I know a blogger who got extremely sick from her new mattress and didn’t know about the flame retardant chemicals since they are not listed on the label. You can read all about that here.
For a person with allergies and/or immune system problems, or who is vulnerable to chemicals in general, it is a bad idea to sleep on something that is constantly off gassing toxic chemicals. Sleep is supposed to refresh and restore the body. Sleeping on a toxic mattress that is out gassing chemicals will be very detrimental. The chemicals are absorbed through the skin and the lungs.
Consumer Products Safety Commission Finds Treated Mattress Risk Free
Why doesn’t that surprise me?However, they did disclose that these chemicals do leach from the mattresses, causing exposure to people sleeping on them. According the to the CPSC, an adult sleeping on a chemically treated mattress will absorb .8 mg of antimony every night, an amount that is 27 times more than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is safe.Children will absorb .5 mg of antimony every night, according to CPSC, which is 63 times more than the EPA’s safety limit!Yet, the CPSC endorses this.
Additionally, European scientists found that antimony leaches through the vinyl on crib mattresses and can be absorbed by infants. No one is safe from the toxic chemicals in mattresses.
… that children with higher concentrations of PBDEs in their umbilical cord blood at birth scored lower on tests of mental and physical development between the ages of one and six. Developmental effects were particularly evident at four years of age, when verbal and full IQ scores were reduced 5.5 to 8.0 points for those with the highest prenatal exposures.
Other Toxic Chemical Not Studied by CPSC
Other toxic chemicals used to flameproof mattresses were not studied by CPSC. These include, formaldehyde, silicon, and ammonium polyphosphate. It was proven ammonium polyphosphate leaches from mattresses in large quantities. This is a chemical used in fertilizers. Do you want your babies to sleep in it?
Exposure Can Occur In Utero
Studies on umbilical cord blood show that developing babies in the womb can receive a huge body burden of toxic chemicals from their environment even before birth. Exposures that continue throughout infancy from, say, a toxic mattress just adds to the burden. Developing infants are much more susceptible to damage from chemicals as their organs and systems are not fully operating and are unable to protect them.
As recently as 2012, harmful fire retardants were found in crib mattresses. The manufacturers claim that the vinyl covering the inner mattress protects the child from the chemicals. But what about the vinyl itself? That’s also been found to be an endocrine disruptor.
What Mattress is Available That is Chemical Free?
When I shop for a mattress, I like to see it, feel it and lay on it, so trying to buy a mattress online is challenging. I did find some sources that you can look at and see if it is a good fit for you and your budget. Some of these chemical free mattresses can be expensive.
Before I grew up and purchased a real bedroom set (just a few years a go — thankfully before 2005!), I slept on a futon. This is simply made of layers of cotton batting. I think it is probably possible to purchase a futon that is made without chemicals in it.
The Wool Bed Company sells wool mattresses that claim to be free of chemicals.
Here is an article from 2012 about the personal experience of one writer who bought his 15 year old a new mattress without the flame resistant barrier.
We got the note, got the mattress, and I still do not know quite what’s in it. I have come to learn that chemical spraying was never part of the deal. A thin fireproof layer — the salesman couldn’t say whether it was treated with chemicals or not — was withheld from placement between the foam topping and exterior ticking. And a tag was slapped on the outer side wall showing the unreturnable mattress to be noncompliant.
I love the part about the tag showing it was noncompliant.
This company, Essentia, manufactures organic mattresses and crib mattresses that claim to be free of chemicals. Instead they use kevlar, acVOC free, non-toxic mattress fire retardant.
… works by isolating the impact of a fire on the mattress and slowing its spread. This provides someone with critical time to escape and call for help. Sertas FireBlocker technology is a proprietary system of natural and synthetic fibers in the outer layers of the mattress and box spring, containing no harmful chemicals.
After all this research I just did, it is still not clear to me just what is available out on the market. Some of these articles were written a few years ago and things may have changed a little. Sales people may be a little more informed about what is in the product — in a perfect world.
I did not mention any foam mattresses as I do not like the idea of a foam mattress –even the fancy memory ones — or especially the fancy memory ones — they are full of chemicals by their nature. However, this company and this company claims to make a non-toxic latex memory foam mattress.
Interestingly, this article states that
… the National Flameproof Mattress regulation allow physicians, including chiropractors, to prescribe fire retardant free mattresses for patients should they conclude that the health risks posed by toxic fire retardants will interfere with the patients’ well being.
There you go, I’ll just prescribe myself a fire retardant free mattress when next I need a new one.
My best advice is to really grill the manufacturer and get as much documented information as possible about the mattress before you buy it.
What will you do? If you have a solution or an experience with these mattresses, please share it in the comments.