The time has come to purchase a new mattress. My original plan was to go to a warehouse bedding store and purchase a new mattress. But then I visited my friend who had just bought a new mattress and the moment I entered, the smell permeated the air. I came home and started doing some research about why on Earth a mattress would still stink that badly. I mean, really…I’d have to sleep holding my nose!
As a parent of small children, the odds of a silent night in my home are slim, so I don’t want to add anything to my list of nightime wakings.
Mattresses must conform to the Federal Standards on flammability. In order to do that, they are coated in a cocktail of chemicals including, chlorinated Tris and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE). Molly wrote about chlorinated Tris is in our furniture in her post, Breathing Queasy: My Carcinogenic Couch. PBDE is a very popular flame retardant used liberally in many, many furniture options. It has been shown to bio-accumulate in fat tissue, blood and breast milk. And when mice were exposed to PBDE while their brains were developing, they became hyperactive.
When these standards were first put into place, the concern was that people would go to bed with a lit cigarette and the embers would fall on the bed, therefore leading the consumer to an untimely death. To determine if a mattress was safe, they tested it by holding a lit cigarette to the mattress and if no flames occurred, the mattress passed the test. Today, flammability testing involves holding multiple blow torches to the mattress for an extended period of time.
What’s that? You don’t bring a blow torch to bed? Me, either, and at this point there is not concrete evidence that flame retardants soaking into our furniture actually saves lives. On the contrary, the evidence shows that even if you never light your bed on fire you’re exposed to harmful chemicals every time you breathe.
There are two main culprits for chemical off-gassing in mattresses. Perhaps the most obvious are the components. Most mattresses, especially the memory foam versions, are filled with foam that spends it’s lifetime emitting isocyanate. Research shows that exposure to the isocyanate can cause headaches and respiratory irritations. Additionally, the chemicals used to glue, stain and coat the mattress have a compound of carcinogenic chemicals, including boric acid. One of the misnomers about off-gassing is that people assume that once the new smell goes away, the gases have stopped emitting. This just isn’t always true. Every mattress is different and because each home environment is different, the length and intensity of the off-gassing can vary between experiences; therefore, we don’t really have a concise tracking of the long term effects.
To prevent yourself from exposure to these flame retardants your best bet would be purchase a mattress that didn’t contain them. But this can be extremely pricey, and that isn’t always possible for the average consumer. So what’s a mama to do? Don’t get out your bio-hazard suits just yet, you have options!
- Buy locally as much as possible. Unless you are shopping in California, there are no union-wide laws that require furniture to be open flame resistant. Depending on where you live, there are local craftsmen who would be able to work with you to create a bed, couch or even mattress that would be toxin-free.
- Avoid the purchase of products that meet the California Technical Bulletin 117. Just because you have a mattress that is treated, it doesn’t mean your pillows or comforters have to be. Read labels — if it says “Complies with California TB117” put it down and find something else.
- Check fire alarms! I understand that the flame retardant policies are a comforting back up, but how many home fires are preventable? Change the batteries every six months and keep open flames to a minimum.
- Allow new mattresses or furniture to off-gas before bringing them into your living space.
- Wrap your standard mattress in a barrier that will block the toxins as they off-gas to a certain extent. There are organic cotton barriers on the market that are machine washable and can protect the mattress.