Claiming a product is “chemical free” is misleading. Taken literally, the term is a misnomer. Everything is made of chemicals—from your drinking water to your cell phone—and your own body.
For mattress shoppers, what’s important is toxicity. You want to find an organic mattress that doesn’t contain the kinds of hazardous chemicals that will harm your health. These range from the polyurethane and formaldehyde in memory foam to chemical fabric finishes and flame retardants.
What makes a healthful mattress?
The materials. Finding the right materials will bring you safer sleep and peace of mind—about every member of your family.
Latex. For a healthful, natural mattress core, no material beats natural latex. (Not “part natural” or “some natural”—but all natural latex.) Natural latex comes from a tree—Hevea brasileana, the rubber tree. The latex sap is collected, whipped into a froth in a centrifuge, and steam-baked to produce sheets of natural latex foam.
Note: Other types of foam, such as memory foam, are made with polyurethane and added chemicals such as formaldehyde. Some mostly-synthetic foams also contain a small amount of rubber with added plant oils; these are deceptively labeled “natural.”
Cotton. Look for natural casing materials, such as pesticide-free certified organic cotton that has not been bleached with chlorine or colored with toxic dyes.
Wool. All mattresses need to pass the flame test. True organic wool batting provides a soft, natural layer that will allow a finished mattress to pass the federally-required flame test.
Look for third-party certifications that verify the safety and integrity of the materials.
Chemical flame retardants and off-gassing
Why are there chemical flame retardants in mattresses?
In 1975, the California legislature enacted Technical Bulletin 117, which required that mattresses and all upholstered furniture pass a flame test. The law was created to help minimize the dangers posed by house fires. But this law was a work-around method—recommended by the tobacco industry—of dealing with the issue of house fires, and it eventually led to chemical flame retardants in common household products such as mattresses and couches.
What are some typical flame retardant chemicals?
According to Duke university, the following chemicals are common flame retardants.
TDCPP (tris) — Tris is known to cause cancer and mutate DNA. It was banned from children’s sleepwear, but remains in upholstered furniture.
Firemaster 550 — Following the phase-out of PBDEs (see below), Firemaster 550 was introduced to replace it. It has been linked with bioaccumulation, endocrine and metabolic disruption, obesity, and anxiety.
V6 — Found in some polyurethane foams, V6 often contains TCEP, a known carcinogen.
TBPP — Around 40% of TBPP is a compound called TPP, which has been found toxic to aquatic life.
MPP Mix — There has been no significant research on this chemical, and little is known in regard to its toxicity and presence in household environments.
TCPP — This compound is commonly used in the U.S. in a variety of foams. It has not been thoroughly tested, although its structure is very similar to that of TDCPP (tris).
PBDEs — Now banned, PBDEs were proven toxic and bioaccumulative in humans and have also been discovered in arctic wildlife.
What are the risks associated with chemical flame retardants?
Health risks vary from chemical to chemical. Some have been proven, others have been associated or are suspected. But there have been some common threads among a number of flame retardants. Here are the most common health risks linked with flame retardants.
- Many flame retardants are bioaccumulative, meaning that once ingested, the chemical accumulates in organisms faster than it is released, increasing associated health risks.
- Known carcinogens such as TDCPP (tris) and TCEP are used as chemical flame retardants despite the concern and evidence demonstrating their toxicity.
- There have been studies correlating chemical flame retardants and increased anxiety, early puberty, and abnormal reproductive cycles.
- Firemaster 550 may cause obesity. In an animal study, the offspring of rats who had ingested the flame retardant saw significant weight gains.
- Certain flame retardants act as endocrine disruptors, which can lead to risks during prenatal and early postnatal development.
The final (and possibly the biggest) risk is that new chemicals enter the market without sufficient testing of their potential hazards to human health. Breezing by a rigorous testing process might make economic sense to manufacturers, but this is truly a risky experiment. There is no way of knowing how a given compound in a common product will react with other environmental chemicals already present in our bodies. And without this knowledge, the potential long-term health effects remain unknown.
Are mattresses without chemical flame retardants available?
Yes. Organic wool is the solution. Natural wool batting can be made into a naturally flame-resistant barrier that, when stitched inside a mattress casing, not only allows a mattress to pass the flame test, but avoids the bioaccumulative and toxic compounds in most flame retardants.
The benefits of organic wool are three-fold. A natural alternative to conventional mattress materials, organic wool does not contain harmful chemicals. And it provides a unique, soft cushioning surface that helps your body regulate temperature. It’s also a sustainable, renewable natural material.
Do mattresses contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?
Most mattresses do, unfortunately.
Although both natural and synthetic things can emit VOCs (as does perfume), in common usage VOCs refers to toxic chemical compounds that off-gas from a product or material into the air. The off-gassing can be obvious or odorless, and it continues for the life of the product as materials gradually break down.
VOCs can cause short-term symptoms (such as asthma attacks or headaches) and long-term diseases (such as cancer). According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is up to ten times greater than outdoor pollution because so many common household products contain these chemicals, and so many homes have poor air circulation.
According to Mother Jones, the polyurethane in memory foam emits VOCs, including formaldehyde. Memory foam is one of the most common mattress materials found today, available in both inexpensive and high-end brands. It can be found in innerspring mattresses and even in some models that are labeled “latex” but only contain a portion of natural rubber or plant oils. These foams may be called bio-hybrid or blended latex, or similar names.
Look for mattresses with the GreenGuard certification, which specifically tests for VOC emissions. Their strictest standard, GreenGuard GOLD, requires that products be tested for over 360 VOCs.
Finding your mattress
The mattress-buying process can be frustrating, but if you know what to look for it can be simpler. Natural latex is supremely supple and durable (often lasting longer than 20 years). And customizable models allow highly personalized comfort. The right organic mattress is a wonderful investment in your long-term health and well being.
If you’re on a modest budget, consider buying a more basic mattress with natural materials. You can still avoid chemical flame retardants without breaking the bank.
It’s time to sleep naturally, and sleep well!