Getting into Bed with Synthetic Chemicals: What I Learned About Mattress Health Risks

Did you know that we spend a third of our lives asleep? On average, that’s more than 229,000 hours. That’s a lot of time on your mattress! And unfortunately, mattresses are often drenched in chemicals. As we learn more about the health risks of these synthetic chemicals, we’re rightfully concerned about the effects of our children inhaling those every night. Thankfully, there are alternatives for your family. Here’s what I learned about organic, non-toxic bedding options.

What’s In Your Mattress?

For decades, mattresses have been an issue of concern. They used to be quite flammable, to the point where a dropped cigarette or knocked-over candle could start a house fire. They were home to bedbugs and mites that could cause serious skin irritation. The nightly buildup of sweat and dead skin cells made a ripe environment for bacterial growth. And many mattresses were poorly designed, leading to back and neck pain.

To fix these problems, manufacturers started using high-density polyurethane foam, flame retardants, liquid-proof coatings, and so on. But while the mattresses were now safer in some ways, they presented new risks:

Flame retardant includes chemicals such as chlorinated tris. It is a known carcinogen that many manufacturers ceased using after research showed mutagenic effects. Any flame retardant made with chlorine, phosphorus, or bromine is potentially carcinogenic. Brominated flame retardants are of particular concern, having been linked to cancer, hormonal disorders, and neurodevelopmental issues. Unfortunately, there is no federal regulation of these chemicals, so many manufacturers will switch from something like brominated tris to a similar compound, chlorinated tris.

Other dangerous mattress chemicals include:

  • Boric acid, which has been linked to kidney damage, developmental defects, and heart disease. A lethal dose is just 15 grams for adults and a mere 2 grams for children. Boric acid is activated by water, so if you sweat a lot at night, you could be absorbing this into your skin.
  • Antimony trioxide, which causes intestinal inflammation, lung damage, and cardiovascular irregularities. It gasses out of the mattress as you sleep, so you’re potentially inhaling it all night.
  • Decabromodiphenyl oxide (Deca), which impairs the thyroid, contributes to liver cancer, and causes reproductive and neurological problems. Deca is banned or restricted in some states but not all.
  • Melamine, which is highly water-soluble and easily absorbed into the bloodstream. Melamine has been linked to kidney crystals, bladder cancer, and reproductive organ damage.
  • Vinylidene Chloride, which causes neurological issues such as convulsions, lethargy, mood disruption, and cognitive impairment. It may also be carcinogenic.

All of these chemicals can have serious, long-lasting health effects on your children. Thankfully, most newer mattresses made in the U.S. are free of the worst offenders, such as Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), which were banned in 2005. However, there are still plenty of other culprits.

Experts say the possible fireproofing benefits are not worth the risk. Many of these chemicals won’t do much beyond buying a few extra seconds before a fire spreads.

Flame retardants aren’t the only issue. Polyurethane foam is a petroleum byproduct that yields Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) — and that’s the minimum amount of damage. Some VOCs have been linked to neurological damage and cancer.

In sum, your and your child’s mattress is a veritable hotbed of carcinogenic, endocrine disruptive, and organ-damaging chemicals.

What can we do?

Making Safer Mattresses

Synthetic chemicals aren’t the only option for flame retardants. It’s important to remember that flame retardants are precisely that: they only delay the spread of the fire. Always be cautious with open flames or heat sources near your mattress (or anything!). However, wool is known to be naturally flame-resistant due to its high moisture retention and dense fibers that limit the flow of oxygen. Organic mattresses can use wool as a flame retardant. (Bonus: they’re nice and warm!)

Another non-toxic flame retardant option is rayon, which could be considered “semi-synthetic.” It’s less expensive than wool and is made by bonding cellulose fibers in silica. While not organic, there are no known carcinogenic risks from rayon.

To help mattresses deflect liquids, organic mattress manufacturers often use latex. Latex is naturally derived from the sap of the rubber tree. It can prevent spills and body fluids from leaking deep into the mattress. You can also ward off liquid damage by using a mattress liner under the fitted sheet. (Just be sure it isn’t made of polyurethane or microfiber!)

After researching these mattress safety issues, I started finding some amazing alternatives. My favorite is now Naturepedic, which makes their mattresses out of natural, non-toxic materials. No VOCs, no formaldehyde, no synthetic flame retardants. In addition to wool and cotton, they use certified Organic Latex according to the Global Organic Latex Standard, Forest Stewardship Council, and Rainforest Alliance. They also have allergy-free options (e.g., if someone in your family is allergic to latex). The company is also certified under the Global Organic Textile Standard and the GREENGUARD Gold Certification.

I noticed an improvement in my sleep within a few days of sleeping on a Naturepedic mattress. My body could immediately feel the difference from not breathing in all those gasses every night! Plus, it’s super comfortable — dangerously so! (But not as dangerous as standard mattresses, of course.)

Wrapping Up

If we spend a third of our lives sleeping, we want to be sure our children are on a mattress that protects their health rather than harming it. Also, organic mattresses are better for the planet as we’re not relying on petroleum products or releasing harmful chemicals into the environment. With a mattress by Naturepedic, you can hit the hay with confidence and comfort.

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