What is memory foam?
According to Wikipedia, memory foam is “polyurethane with additional chemicals increasing its viscosity and density.”
Toxic chemicals in memory foam
So what are those “additional chemicals”? What do we know about memory foam?
- There have been legal consequences for memory foam companies which claimed their products are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
- Some memory foam mattresses contain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, and naphthalene.
- Memory foam may contain isocyanates, which, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. Exposure to isocyanates can also lead to chest tightness and asthma. According to Yale University, continued exposure to isocyanates can lead to “regular asthma, and asthma attacks that are triggered in many environments, not just by isocyanate exposure.” Isocyanates are classified as potential human carcinogens.
Polyurethane: flame retardants, off gassing, and safety
Memory foam mattresses often contain chemical flame retardants which have been linked to a litany of health problems, including developmental brain disorders, cancer, and obesity. Organic wool, however, is a soft, natural material that not only can allow a mattress to pass the mandated flame test, but adds a layer of airy cushioning to the top of your mattress.
It’s not uncommon to notice a chemical off-gassing smell upon unpacking a memory foam mattress. The best way to get rid of the odor is to allow the mattress to air out by moving air through the room. This can be done by opening doors and windows and running a fan.
So what’s the risk? The risk is the unknown. We can’t positively say a memory foam mattress will cause “this effect.” Every person is different. Every mattress is different. Some memory foam mattress users complain of waking with headaches. Others develop respiratory issues such as asthma. Still others have concerns about the long-term health effects of years of nightly exposure to this material.
It's not certain what risk every individual might encounter. But what you can do is use the information available about memory foam to make the best possible decision.
Evaluating risk is something that we do every day, whether we are crossing the street or choosing foods to buy at the supermarket. Your mattress choice is the same thing. Gather relevant information, consider organic mattress options, and make the choice that is wisest for you.