Your mattress could contain a variety of different materials that off-gas—and some of those vapors carry significant risks to your long-term health. Memory foam mattresses are made with polyurethane. Other chemicals frequently found in memory foam and other synthetic mattresses include formaldehyde, benzene, and napthalene. And most mattresses contain chemical flame retardants, which have been linked to a variety of serious health issues, including cancer, infertility, obesity and developmental brain disorders.
Most of these compounds are present because—to be frank—they’re cheaper than natural, nontoxic mattress materials. It’s an unfortunate truth that many manufacturers cut corners in order to save money. Mattress shoppers seldom focus much on the materials and that’s understandable. It’s odd to be thinking about possible harm when you’re just seeking comfortable sleep. But the reality is that it’s very common for companies to add hazardous chemicals that reduce manufacturing costs—while disregarding the health and/or environmental problems they cause.
So what can be done?
Reducing the chemical smell
The best solution is an organic mattress, but realistically, that won’t suit everyone’s budget. The next-best option is to let the mattress breathe. You want to get air circulating throughout your bedroom to reduce the initial caustic odor. Open windows near your bed and around the room. Open your bedroom door. Then, aim a fan from the door toward a window to get a cross-breeze going. If you’d like more detail about the best way to circulate air, the Department of Energy recommends outward-facing window fans, smaller inlets and big outlets, and trying different methods to get the best results.
Continue to run a cross-breeze through the room until the off-gassing smell has significantly decreased. Many mattresses will lose the most obvious chemical smell after a few days. People with acute sensitivity to odors may continue to detect the off-gassing, but the strongest vapors will continue to dissipate as time goes on.
As a mattress airs out, the detectable smell begins to decrease. However, the truth is that even airing out doesn’t mean that all the toxic chemicals are gone. Some chemical vapors are odorless, so you won’t be aware that you’re breathing them. And generally, whatever’s in a mattress continues to emit over time, even if at lower levels.
Ideally every toxic trace would go out the window right away, and you’d be in the clear from lasting exposure. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. In addition to releasing into indoor air, many compounds continually migrate into house dust for the life of the product, settling onto the floor and into carpet fibers. This is unhealthy for everyone, but puts infants and toddlers at the greatest risk.
The little ones—who crawl over the floor, touch everything and then put dusty fingers in their mouths—inhale or ingest nearly five times more house dust than adults do. Along with with their smaller size, this makes them highly vulnerable to the chemicals and VOCs found in most mattresses, couches, other household items and finishes.
It’s unlikely that sleeping on a mattress with low levels of potentially harmful chemicals for one night—or even several—will result in long-term health consequences. But long-term use does mean cumulative exposure, and that’s how health risks become real.
The best plan is to replace your mattresses with an organic model made with safe, natural materials as soon as you are able. And sleep well.