Your Mattress May Be Making You Sick

Your Mattress May Be Making You Sick post image

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.

This study at Columbia University found,

… 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.

Serta makes claims for their FireBlocker® system that

… 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.

This post is shared at: Creative Juice Thursday, Thank Your Body Thursday, Simple Lives Thursday, Fresh Bites Friday, Fight Back Friday, Small Footprint Friday, Barnyard Hop, Hearth & Soul Hop

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Leave a Comment

  • Annie Atkin Rasmussen March 20, 2013, 9:26 pm

    This. Is. TERRIFYING. Both of my sweet babies are asleep right now on mattresses full of these chemicals! But with all of the other health interventions I am working on and a husband still in graduate school, how can I possibly hope to afford new mattresses? I guess my only comfort is that at least the older one prefers to sleep on the floor… maybe he knows instinctively that it’s what his body needs. Just don’t post about the dangerous chemicals that are probably in his spot on the carpet or I will NEVER sleep again! 😉 In all seriousness, though, I think I really need to look into this.

    • Charlotte March 21, 2013, 5:53 am

      Hi Annie, if replacing the mattresses right now isn’t an option, you might want to look into mattress wrapping. I haven’t done it myself so am not recommending it as such, but am aware of it as an option.

      • Lisa March 21, 2013, 10:18 am

        I highly recommend mattress wrapping. We learned about the chemicals in mattresses right before our first was born, did some research, and found the New Zealand SIDS studies that were done in the 90s. Basically, SIDS has been eradicated in New Zealand by families who practice mattress wrapping because the babies aren’t breathing in those chemicals at night. Google “BabeSafe mattress cover” and you should find a site that has all the info on the studies…just maybe don’t do it right before you put your kids to bed or it will give you nightmares. They even have suggestions for what to do if you have a child sleeping on an unwrapped mattress right now. You do have to order the covers from New Zealand, but I did find one place in the U.S. that carries them in stock and you can pay extra to have them in 2-3 days (should come up in your Googling – it was Eve’s or Evie’s something or other). It’s about $40 per cover, and we just have ours over regular Wal-Mart crib mattresses ($60 or $70 each), still putting the total investment in a safe mattress well below $120/bed. Organic crib mattresses run $700-$2000 from what I’ve seen. The cover is basically a big Ziploc bag with two ventilation holes on the bottom, so the gases vent out the bottom of the crib. Your baby will be sleeping on a surface that is not breathable, so the gases can’t get through. I know that for me, it’s worth the $40 to have the peace of mind of not having to worry. I could never justify paying $1000 for a crib mattress, especially when we need two. This is just as good of a solution for a fraction of that price.

  • Kelly March 20, 2013, 10:12 pm

    I had done some searching for mattresses that are made of more/all natural materials and free from the nasty chemicals…. I landed on the wool bed company you link to in the article. I really like the idea of a wool bed free of chemicals and naturally flame-resistant (since it’s wool). However I’ll need to save – it’s not a insignificant investment! I wish I could feel/see these wool mattresses locally. There really isn’t much out there, and main stream mattress companies’ products nor sales people come even close to being able to address these issues.

    I unfortunately bought a mattress 4 years ago – one of those mainstream firm pillow-top mattresses – and I’m very unhappy with how it so quickly has become worn/sunken where we sleep. It has a 5 year guarantee as well as a 10 year manufacturers but I don’t even want to use their guarantee because the guarantee will only provide me with credit towards another new mainstream mattress with a fresh layer of more chemicals… I thank you for writing about the topic… it’s something important to me, and that I feel like doesn’t get enough attention/thought.

  • Leah March 20, 2013, 11:40 pm

    I just bought a Pure Rest mattress from Organic Grace and it is free of all chemical fire retardants. They are fanatical about keeping toxic chemicals out of their mattresses. They test every raw material that comes into their factory. The organic wool layer acts as a fire retardant.

  • Susan Weinberg March 21, 2013, 5:55 am

    After reading this, I think I’ll keep my mattress that I bought in the mid 90’s. It’s still good and firm. I’ll just buy a cover for the box spring and mattress because, after all those years and several moves it’s not as pristine as I would like it. But better than buying a toxic new one. Thank for the article.

  • Dianne March 21, 2013, 8:42 am

    Thank you so much for this post. I see that you have found what I have; that it is all very confusing. One thing I am certain of, I will not rush into any purchase and will keep my old mattress until I have information that I am certain about!

  • Marybeth Durland March 21, 2013, 10:07 am

    Stearns and Foster mattresses apparently have no antimony or PBDEs. The company uses a patented process that weaves Kevlar fibers (the material used to make bullet-proof vests) into the mattress covering. This is is sufficient to pass fire safety standards.

    • Laura March 18, 2015, 3:19 pm

      Make sure that’s what they’re still doing. Seems like I looked into it and found out that had changed, not sure.

  • Margie March 21, 2013, 2:08 pm

    About 15 years ago, we ordered an untreated cotton mattress from Janice’s Catalog (based in NJ) – had to have a doctor’s prescription. It was fine but finally sagged so that it was killing our back. So, after 12 years, we bought an organic latex mattress set from Lifekind (CA). They’re pretty good at helping you determine the right firmness. I ordered a sample set of the materials for both as I had to make sure that they didn’t bother me. Obasan out of Canada is another good source, but I had a travel pillow made up of the materials and there was a very strong odor that lasted for months, so I didn’t go with them. I believe that Janice’s sells only organic cotton sets now. We had gone with the nonorganic because of price and because we knew that all of the cotton used had been washed multiple times in baking soda. Jnice’s is a catalog geared towards chemically sensitive people. They also have cotton barrier cloth mattress and box spring covers that might help if you can’t srping for an organic set. It is a huge investment, but considering how much time one spends in bed, it’s worth it. I have no affiliation with any of the companies mentioned. They all have some very knowledgable and helpful people who can answer your questions. Other companies worth checking out are The Organic Mattress Store or Company (I think they’re based in PA) and the Vermont Wool Company – I think that’s the name and The Clean Bedroom (I think they’re in Maine). There are other new ones popping up. I personally would not trust the main mattress manufacturers as research that I did found a lot of hidden stuff, and the mattresses are made in the same facilities as the toxic ones. Also, if researching, check to make sure that the materials were not treated in some way if they came from another country due to customs regulations. A huge investment in time and money, but well worth it, especially for your little ones. Hope this helps. Oh, EGW (Environmental Working Group) is currently working on a mattress study. And, if you do get a latex type (no, not memory foam – that stuff is super toxic), pay for the White Glove delivery service. A king is totally unmanageable and super heavy.

  • Amber March 21, 2013, 3:58 pm

    Great article, Jill. Our two children recently went to twin beds, and after a TON of research, I choose these twin mattresses:

    We can’t afford a new king size mattress for our bed, and I look forward to getting rid of our chemical laden mattress. I just didn’t think about that 10 years ago when we purchased it. I was newly diagnosed with Crohn’s and spending a lot of time researching other things like diet, healing, candida, parasites etc. There just wasn’t room in my brain of anything else. Chemicals in carpets, beds, paints,etc., were not even on my mind. Now they are and I cringe at how many chemicals I exposed my body to when we purchased our first home 10 years ago (disgusting new carpets, fresh chemical laden paint, new formaldehyde infused kitchen, new formaldehyde ridden couches and chairs). It makes me sick just thinking about it. Oh well, ignorance is bliss, right (but also very harmful).

    I have a post coming up on the dangers of carpets. So gross.

    Thanks for all the information.


  • cursor system March 24, 2013, 3:06 pm

    This article has really opened my brain towards these bed chemicals. I was not feeling fined about a year ago after sleeping on one of my friends bed for about a week. When I went to the hospital, doctor did not tell me anything. I was just treated that all. It is when I read this article that I know what might cause my sickness then. Thaks

  • Sarah March 25, 2013, 7:02 pm

    I hate thinking how many chemicals are being absorbed into our bodies day in and day out- and all in the name of “safety”. Ugh. I’ve seen Jessica Alba recommend allergy free mattress covers for this. Why do you think about that as a solution? Is tht the same as “wrapping”?

    • Jill March 25, 2013, 7:45 pm

      The allergy free covers are there to provide a barrier for tiny particles, but I do not think they would be sufficient against vapors.

  • Lindsey October 14, 2013, 5:09 pm

    Me and my husband just got a memory foam cover for our mattress. it was so hard we couldn’t sleep and we were both getting terrible back aches (we live in a student apartment building that comes completely furnished, including the mattress). when we took the cover out of the package we were so excited to sleep on a soft bed that we didn’t even think twice about how it smelled like paint thinner! Since we got the cover only three days ago I have swollen lymph nodes and have been lightheaded/ dizzy pretty much non stop. Sometimes I even feel like i have a fever. I guess we’ll be returning the mattress cover today. I’m tired of being sick. Now we’ll just have to figure out another way to relive our aching backs.

    • Jill October 14, 2013, 7:30 pm

      Memory foam is highly toxic. I’m not surprised by your list of symptoms.

  • Rachel January 16, 2014, 11:34 pm

    I bought a SERTA mattress 1 month ago and it still smells terrible.. I think it affects my sleep and perhaps health too. I have asked my friends to smell it so I know Im not crazy and they say it smells pretty bad too or like “plastic.” ICK. I am constantly uncovering it during the day and washing my sheets because they take on the same chemical smell. Even my room smells bad … I will never ever purchase a non-organic or chemical-free bed again. Its so scary that these mattresses are being sold in most stores. The store I bought it from will not let me return it even tho I expressed my concern about the smell and my dissatisfaction with the product as a whole- so I am now trying to sell it.. how frustrating.

    • Jill January 17, 2014, 8:30 am

      Hi Rachel,
      That is upsetting. I am very sensitive to chemicals and have to be very careful of what I buy.

  • carla8 February 11, 2014, 6:35 am

    this is really excellent article ,very useful!!!!!
    There are many kinds of pillows in the market that one may have difficulty choosing the best fit for his needs and preferences. You spend a good amount of time resting on your pillow and a third of your whole existence sleeping, that selecting for pillows that match your body’s contour well is pretty

  • sara July 19, 2014, 12:19 pm

    I highly recommend mattress wrapping. We learned about the chemicals in mattresses right before our first was born,Memory Foam Mattress Topper That is upsetting. I am very sensitive to chemicals and have to be very careful of what I buy this is really excellent article ,very usefull

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  • Kimley Duncan October 10, 2015, 4:10 pm

    it’s more than possible that people with breathing problems may get sick from certain types of mattresses