When you consider that you spend roughly 8 hours per night sleeping – or 2,920 hours per year and about 1/3 of your life – that’s a lot of time spent with your body snuggled up against your mattress! But, did you know that your mattress may be the most toxic component in your bedroom?
Studies looking into the health risks of sleeping on a chemical-laden mattress are hard to come by, but we do know that these chemicals themselves pose hazards. In most cases it’s virtually impossible to find out what’s really in your mattress because manufacturers are not required to label or disclose which chemicals their mattresses contain.
The primary filling materials used in most conventional mattresses are polyurethane foam and memory foam. They’re made with a variety of toxic chemicals. They also break down over time, causing major off-gassing of vaporous chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), into the air you breathe. Plus, they’re both derived from highly flammable petroleum-based materials. As a result, these beds are often soaked in the most powerful and dangerous chemical flame retardants as a last step in the manufacturing process. Worryingly, manufacturers are not required to disclose the fire retardants they use!
Some of the fire retardants commonly used include:
- Boric acid, a pesticide that is used to kill cockroaches, and which causes respiratory irritation and skin irritation
- Antimony,a metal that may be more toxic than mercury. As this accumulates in your body over time, it could present a significant health risk
- Rayon treated with silica, which is unstudied for its toxicity effects. Rayon is a synthetic fiber treated with various chemicals during processing
- Formaldehyde, which has been linked to cancer
- Melamine resin, a known carcinogen
- Vinylidene chloride, a known carcinogen, which can cause eye and respiratory irritation and organ damage
- Methyl benzene, a nervous system disruptor.
How Flame Retardants Can Impact Your Health
Flame retardants have been linked to:
- Endocrine disruption
- Immune toxicity (adverse effects on the immune system)
- Reproductive toxicity
- Adverse effects on foetal and child development and neurologic function
- Neurobehavioral changes and reduced IQ
- Disrupt thyroid hormones.
Flame retardants are also persistent in the environment and do not break down into safer chemicals. They tend to bioaccumulate, or build up, in people and animals. They also create toxic, carcinogenic by-products if burned, which may be associated with higher rates of cancer in firefighters.
The ‘new mattress smell’ is actually toxic mattress smell! In one study, researchers found that mice exposed to mattress emissions experienced upper and lower respiratory irritation, as well as decreased air flow. Some researchers believe that the mattress toxins are also absorbed through the skin, since PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a type of flame retardant) can be found in women’s breast milk.
A Danger for Children
Polyurethane foam is the predominant filling for baby mattresses. Because young children are very vulnerable and may spend over 50% of their early life sleeping on a baby mattress, there is a concern about the health effects. Some crib mattresses emit mixtures of chemicals capable of causing cardiac arrhythmias, difficulty breathing, chest discomfort, irritation of mucous membranes, headaches, coughing, asthma and allergic reaction, dizziness, weakness, fatigue, nausea and blurred vision. You can read more in-depth information about this here.
How Can You Avoid These Toxic Chemicals?
One of the most frustrating things about buying a mattress is the lengths that mattress companies go to in order to hide the toxic chemicals from you. Unfortunately, mattress companies are not required to disclose what flame retardants they are using. And it’s especially difficult to know exactly what is inside a mattress when the company is using a “proprietary” formulation. So unless a mattress company is explicitly eliminating the use of chemical flame retardants, and using a natural product like wool, they are most likely using harmful chemicals.
Non-Toxic Options for Mattresses and Bedding
When it comes to bedding, as a rule of thumb I recommend you opt for natural fibers, such as wool and organic cotton, instead of synthetic fibres, which may contain chemical residues from processing. Organic cotton is also great option for a filling material for a mattress since it’s natural, non-toxic, firm and breathable. Cotton will not burst into flames (like polyurethane foam) or release toxic fumes when ignited. However, since cotton is a crop that is heavily sprayed with pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals, it’s important for the cotton to be certified organic.
Wool is also commonly used in mattresses and bedding since it is naturally fire resistant, does not provide a favorable environment for dust mites and handles moisture well. Wool, however, can also contain lanolin and certain alcohols known to have allergenic properties, and babies can be allergic specifically to the natural animal fibre in organic wool. Non-organic wool may contain chemical treatments, so some assumed allergies to wool are actually sensitivities to the chemicals used in processing the wool.
While I hope this blog has highlighted the need to be aware of what exactly is in your mattress (and even your bedding), I am not an expert on this, so I would recommend you visit this website for more information.
I also recommend you keep doing your own research to find something you are personally comfortable sleeping on.