What's Hiding in Your Mattress?

mattress chemicals

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many commercial mattresses contain toxic chemicals such as antimony, formaldehyde and flame retardants
  • Mattresses labeled “natural” may still contain chemicals; even those labeled only “organic” can still contain non-organic materials and chemicals
  • The purest mattresses on the market contain the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and/or the Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) certification on their label

By Dr. Mercola

You spend about one-third of your life sleeping; that's a lot of time spent with your body snuggled up against your mattress. This sanctuary should not only allow you to get proper rest, but should do so in a pure fashion without exposing you to unnecessary risk.

Unfortunately, most mattresses are anything but pure. As of July 1, 2007, all U.S. mattresses are required to be highly flame retardant to the extent that they won't catch on fire if exposed to a blowtorch. This means they may contain flame-retardant chemicals.

One type of flame-retardant chemical, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), has been banned in the U.S. since 2004 due to health concerns. But if your mattress contains polyurethane foam and was manufactured before this date, it might still contain them.

Boric acid, a toxic respiratory irritant used to kill roaches; antimony, a metal that may be more toxic than mercury and formaldehyde, which causes cancer, are some of the other chemicals that lurk in many mattresses — even those from "high-end" brands.

What's Hiding in Your Mattress?

In most cases it's virtually impossible to find out what's really in your mattress. Mattress manufacturers are not required to label or disclose which chemicals their mattresses contain. They may even claim that their mattresses are safe, when in reality they are not. As reported by Mother Jones:1

"Major manufacturers such as Simmons, Sealy, and Tempur-Pedic won't divulge their flame-retardant formulas, which are considered trade secrets …

A best guess at what's in today's mattresses comes from Ryan Trainer, … [president] of the International Sleep Products Association, an industry group.

He says most companies use 'various types of barrier fabrics' such as cotton treated with boric acid or rayon treated with silica — both relatively benign chemicals — as well as fire-resistant materials such as modacrylic fiber (which contains antimony oxide, a carcinogen) and melamine resin (which contains formaldehyde)."

Mattresses may off-gas such chemicals, which means they slowly "leak" out over time. Studies looking into the health risks of sleeping on a chemical-laden mattress are hard to come by, but we do know that such chemicals themselves pose hazards.

PBDEs, for instance, 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.2 Previous research has suggested PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).3

Although newer mattresses will no longer contain PBDEs, the chemicals used to replace them may be just as bad. For instance, organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) are frequently found in conventional mattresses.

Some OPFRs have been identified as known or suspected carcinogens or neurotoxic substances.

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Why Flame Retardant Chemicals in Your Mattress Could Be Dangerous

The primary filling material used in most conventional mattresses is polyurethane foam — a highly flammable petroleum-based material. Because of its high flammability, polyurethane foam must be treated or wrapped with fire retardant chemicals.

Flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ scores and behavioral problems in children, hormone disruptions, and various forms of cancer.

The risks may be especially dangerous to children, as research revealed that children born to women who were exposed to high levels of PBDEs during pregnancy had, on average, a 4.5 point decrease in IQ.4 Such children are also more prone to hyperactivity disorders.

Remember, these chemicals don't "stay put" in the mattress. They migrate out and collect in house dust. As a result, an estimated 90 percent of Americans have some level of flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies.

Long-term residents of California, which was the first state to use flame retardant chemicals, tend to have far higher levels.

This is no small concern. Flame retardant chemicals have even been identified as one of 17 "high priority" chemical groups that should be avoided to reduce your risk of breast cancer.5

Adding to the conundrum of using flame retardant chemicals, when on fire, objects doused in flame retardants (yes, they can still catch fire) give off higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke than untreated objects.

These three things are more likely to kill a person in a fire than burns, which means flame retardant chemicals may actually make fires more deadly.

How to Find a Safer Mattress

If you want to avoid flame retardants and other chemicals in your mattress, you can have a licensed health care provider write you a prescription for a chemical-free mattress, which can then be ordered without flame retardants from certain retailers.

You can also find certain natural mattresses on the market that don't contain them. For instance, most wool mattresses do not have flame-retardant chemicals added because wool is a natural flame retardant.

Given the blatant dangers posed by flame retardants, in late November 2013 California's governor ordered that TB117 (which required all furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second open flame test) be rewritten to ensure fire safety without the use of these chemicals.

Starting in January 2014, furniture manufacturers began producing furniture that's not required to use flame-retardant chemicals, and full compliance was expected by January 2015. Unfortunately, the updated law only states that the chemicals are no longer required; it doesn't ban them outright.

Organic Mattress Labels You Can Trust

If you're looking for a safe mattress, you need to know what to look for on labels. Some terms, such as "natural," mean virtually nothing, while other labels, such as "organic," may be misleading (as it could mean only part of the mattress materials are organic).

Consumer Reports recently compiled a guide of what such labels really mean.6 Here are some highlights to consider:

Best Mattress Labels: GOTS and GOLS

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): At least 95 percent of the mattress materials must be certified organic. Certain substances, including flame retardants and polyurethane (common in memory foam products), are prohibited.
  • Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS): Applies to latex mattress and ensures only organic latex is used.

Good: Oeko-Tex Standard 100

This label sets limits on the emission of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Chemical flame retardants, colorants and allergenic dyes are prohibited.

Labels with Some Value

  • CertiPUR-US: Applies only to polyurethane foam and prohibits certain substances, such as PBDE. Testing is required for formaldehyde and other toxins.
  • Greenguard: The finished mattress must be tested for specific emission limits of formaldehyde and other VOCs.
  • Greenguard Gold: The same as Greenguard but with tighter emission limits.
  • Organic: A mattress may be labeled organic even if only parts of it are organic (and other parts contain harmful chemicals). For instance, the label may read "made with organic cotton."
  • Organic Content Standard 100: This applies to the percentage of certified-organic materials in the mattress. It also ensures proper tracking of organic cotton from its source to the finished product.

Once you purchase a new mattress, there's a simple way to help reduce your exposure to toxic emission — let it air out before you sleep on it. According to Consumer Reports:7

"Prices for mattresses with green claims run from as little as $600 to more than $25,000 for luxury versions. In general, expect to pay around $2,000 for a queen-size mattress — more for one meeting GOTS or GOLS. Whatever mattress you buy, air it out for at least 48 hours before using it to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.

That likely means you'll have to dispose of the old mattress yourself (rather than letting the retailer haul it away when they deliver the new one), but you might thank yourself in the long run."

The Best Mattresses Have Multiple Labels You Can Trust

A mattress needn't have only one of the certifications above. The best and purest mattresses on the market may combine multiple safety standards, giving you the ultimate in safety and comfort.

This is certainly the case with my Healthy Home Certified Organic Mattresses and bedding made by Naturepedic. Naturepedic mattresses not only pass flammability standards without chemical flame retardants, they are also third-party certified with the following certifications:

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
  • Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS)
  • Organic Content Standard (OCS100)

My mattresses provide fire protection with superior product design and better materials. Their unique and innovative approach provides a simple and elegant solution allowing these mattresses and bedding products to meet all federal and state flammability standards — without the use of dangerous chemicals.

Be especially careful when choosing a mattress for your child, as products intended for kids and babies are also those most likely to be doused in flame retardant chemicals. 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 pure mattress for your child.

How Often Should You Replace Your Mattress?

You may be wondering when it's time to retire your old mattress and upgrade to a new one. This isn't always an obvious decision the way replacing other household goods can be. As noted by The Better Sleep Council:8

"Similar to your favorite old chair or worn pair of shoes, your mattress can still feel somewhat comfortable long after it has lost its ability to provide your body with the proper support and comfort it needs. Because sleep is so critical to our ability to function and feel our best, it is important to evaluate your sleep set on a regular basis to know when your sleep is compromised and to replace mattress accessories as well."

How long your mattress will last depends on a number of factors, including its original quality and how much use it gets. The following signs may indicate your mattress is no longer providing you with optimal support and it's time for a change:9

  • You wake up stiff, numb, or in pain
  • Your mattress has visible signs of overuse (stains, holes, sagging, or tears)
  • You're tired even after sleeping all night
  • You sleep better when you sleep in a different bed (such as at a hotel)
  • Your mattress is seven years or older

Once you've upgraded, here's a tip to keep your mattress in good condition. Once every four months (or once a season), use your vacuum to remove crumbs, dead skin, and dust from your mattress. You can also sprinkle it with baking soda, let it sit for an hour, and then vacuum it up for extra deodorizing.