Friday, August 10, 2012
Mattresses: Conventional vs. Organic
Most conventional mattresses are constructed of materials that can off-gas and otherwise degrade, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and toxic dust that we then breathe, absorb through our skin, and even ingest during the hours we spend sleeping.
Conventional cotton used to make mattresses may be contaminated with pesticide and insecticide residues. It also is treated during the production process with chemicals, some of which are very toxic. These include formaldehyde, dioxins and heavy metals.
Formaldehyde is also used in some mattresses to make the adhesives that hold the mattress together. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that has been linked to asthma, as well as lung, nose and throat cancer.
Most conventional mattresses contain polyurethane (PU) foam. There is nothing good to be said about PU foam. It is a petroleum-based material that emits VOCs linked to respiratory problems and skin irritation. Memory-foam mattresses contain a host of troubling materials--one lab analysis revealed that one model of this type of mattress emitted 61 chemicals, including the carcinogens benzene and naphthalene.
In addition, PU foam is extremely flammable and thus, in order to meet federal safety standards, manufacturers must take measures to make it resistant to flames. They do this by using toxic flame retardants or barrier fabrics, which also may contain harmful chemicals.
Many conventional mattresses manufactured prior to 2004 used PDBEs as flame retardants. The use of these substances was banned or phased out by industry as the evidence of their toxicity mounted. They are developmental neurotoxins as well as potent thyroid disruptors. PDBEs accumulate and persist in our bodies. They are still found in women's breast milk and the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.
There is no way to know what manufacturers are using today to meet federal regulations regulating the flammability of mattresses. Major mattress companies refuse to disclose this information, claiming that their materials are protected as proprietary trade secrets.
This article cites an industry spokesperson who says that most of the manufacturers now use fire-resistant barrier fabrics. Some of these are made of melamine-formaldehyde resin; as these fibers degrade they release formaldehyde. Others are made of modacrylic fiber, which contains antimony oxide, another known carcinogen. Still other barrier fabrics used in mattresses are cotton bonded with boric acid (which some object to as it is also used as roach poison) and rayon treated with silica (tiny fragments of glass or clay).
Of course, avoiding harmful materials is of paramount importance when shopping for a child's or baby's mattress. A report released in November of last year found that 72% of the crib mattresses sold in the U.S. contained one or more chemicals of concern, such as antimony, polyurethane, vinyl, other volatile organic compounds, and undisclosed flame retardants.
Wool is naturally fire-resistant. An organic mattress can meet federal fire safety regulations without the use of chemical flame retardants if it is properly constructed using wool.
If you are in the market for a new mattress or shopping for an infant's or child's mattress, there are many sources of safer alternatives to conventional mattresses that you might want to consider. We bought our organic latex mattress at the Organic Mattress Store in Hellertown, PA. We took a side trip there on a trip to Philadelphia; it is about 1 1/2 hours away.
I was happy to discover that an organic mattress store recently opened in Pittsburgh: the Natural Sleep Shop in Cranberry. This store carries the Savvy Rest line of organic mattresses and crib mattresses.
An organic mattress will almost certainly cost more than a conventional mattress. However, a natural latex mattress will also last longer than a conventional mattress. We were told that ours should last 20-25 years. When I considered that we spend 8 hours a day breathing and otherwise absorbing whatever is being released from our mattress, it made sense to me to go organic.