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The Mattress Which Plays Havoc With Your Hormones

The Mattress Which Plays Havoc With Your Hormones

Story at-a-glance -

  • PBDE is a dangerous flame-retardant chemical and has been detected in the highest levels in the world among pregnant women in Northern California
  • California's strict flammability laws, mandated in the 1970s, caused many manufacturers to add flame retardant chemicals to consumer products, which may explain the high exposure levels
  • Prenatal exposure to PBDEs may disrupt thyroid function and proper brain development
  • Tips for reducing your PBDE exposure around your home

By Dr. Mercola

California has strict flammability laws that require all upholstered furniture and bedding products sold in the state to be flame-retardant.

The law does not require the use of toxic PBDE chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) to achieve this, but they are the cheapest way for manufacturers to meet the standard requirements.

As a result, upholstery and mattresses sold in California are often pumped full of PBDEs and now future generations may suffer for it.

Record Levels of PBDEs Found in Northern California Pregnant Women

Upon testing blood levels of PBDEs in 25 second-trimester pregnant women in California, researchers found the highest-ever reported levels worldwide. They also found indications that the chemicals interfere with thyroid function, a finding that previous studies have also revealed.

California residents do have some of the highest levels of all, due to the state's strict fire safety standards. A separate study in Environmental Health Perspectives recently found that California children's PBDE levels were seven times higher than levels found in Mexican children.

But this doesn't mean children and adults in the rest of the United States are not at risk. The U.S. implemented fire safety standards in the 1970s that over time has led to more and more products adopting the use of PBDEs to meet the stringent regulations.

As of July 1, 2007, all U.S. mattresses are required to be so flame retardant that they won't catch on fire even if they're exposed to the equivalent of a blowtorch!

Now as many as 97 percent of all Americans have significant levels of PBDEs in their blood. In fact, most Americans have levels that are 10 to 20 times higher than those found in Europeans. For comparison, though, studies show that California children have levels that are still 10-1,000 times higher than European children and five times higher than other U.S. children.

What are the Health Consequences of PBDE Exposure?

PBDEs disrupt mechanisms that are responsible for releasing hormones in your body, as well as alter calcium signaling in your brain, which is a critical mechanism for learning and memory.

These chemicals actually resemble the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development. Like PCBs, even though certain PBDEs have been banned in some U.S. states and the European Union, they persist in the environment and accumulate in your body.

Higher exposures to PBDEs have been linked to decreased fertility, which could be in part because the chemicals may mimic your thyroid hormones. Previous research has suggested PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone). When present with normal T4 levels, low TSH is typically a sign that you're developing hyperthyroidism, which can have significant ramifications both for you and your unborn child if you're pregnant.

Hyperthyroidism during pregnancy has been linked to:

  • Altered fetal neurodevelopment -- In one animal study, PBDE chemicals caused hyperactivity in the offspring when administered during brain development, and also permanently impaired spermatogenesis in males by reducing sperm and spermatid counts
  • Increased risk of miscarriage
  • Premature birth
  • Intrauterine growth retardation
  • Decreased motor skills
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PBDEs Lurking in 80 Percent of Baby Products

Children are among those most at risk from PBDEs' ability to harm development, but products intended for kids and babies are also those most likely to be doused in flame-retardant chemicals. For instance, such chemicals were recently detected in 60 percent of 2011 car seats tested by The Ecology Center, most likely in the polyurethane foam.

If you were going to address only one baby item, it makes sense to start with the one where your child spends the most time: their crib mattress.  If you own any of the following non-organic foam products, you can assume they, too, contain PBDEs, as a recent study in Environmental Science & Technology detected flame-retardant chemicals in 80 percent of such products tested:

Nursing pillows

Baby carriers

Car seats

Changing table pads

High chairs



Portable cribs


Baby tub inserts and bath slings

Glider rockers

Sleeping wedges

You spend from six to nine hours every night with your face in close proximity to your mattress, breathing in these chemicals. Your children spend even longer sleeping, with their faces even closer to the mattress surface. And if your children jump on the bed, or you bounce on your mattress, even more of these toxins can be released into the air. For this reason, look for a safe, organic, or 100% wool mattress for your child.

As for the rest of the house, PBDEs are widespread in:

  • Carpets
  • Textiles
  • Polyurethane foam furnishings
  • Electronics and plastics
  • Motor vehicles

They outgas into your home regularly and are commonly found in household dust, where they can be inhaled. Again, since they are persistent environmental pollutants, PBDEs are also found in various foods, including wild fish and the most "pure" food of all, breast milk.

PBDEs Aren't Listed on Labels: How to Avoid Them Anyway

Avoiding PBDEs is not as simple as checking labels, as manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to make their products comply with safety regulations. When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, carpet padding as well as other plastic products like cell phones, computers and TVs, ask what type of fire retardant it contains. Although you likely won't find PBDEs in newer foam products, there are a number of other fire-retardant chemicals that can be just as detrimental to your health, including antimony, formaldehyde, boric acid, and other brominated chemicals.

The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) guide to PBDEs recommends being particularly mindful of polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and pillows. If you have any of these in your home, inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.

Older carpet padding is another major source of flame-retardant PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet. You'll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around, and use a HEPA filter vacuum to clean up.

You probably also have older sources of the PBDEs known as Deca in your home as well, and these are so toxic they are banned in several states. Deca PBDEs can be found in electronics like TVs, cell phones, kitchen appliances, fans, toner cartridges and more. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling such items, especially before eating, and at the very least be sure you don't let infants mouth any of these items (like your TV remote control or cell phone).

As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool and cotton. Also look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, baby items and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals and help reduce your overall exposure.