Even those of us who are sleep deprived probably spend 2,000 hours a year in our beds. Babies, who are undergoing processes of critical developmental while they sleep, sometimes spend 10 hours a night (if their parents are lucky) on crib mattresses. Mattresses—particularly crib mattresses—can contain some really nasty hidden toxins, including unnecessary flame retardant chemicals, PVC (vinyl) plastic, and allergens. The problem with these toxic chemicals? They can be released from the mattress into the air that you breathe, as well as settle in house dust providing ongoing exposure to you and your family. These hazardous chemicals are linked to many serious health issues, including endocrine disruption, thyroid problems, learning deficits, hyperactivity, hypospadias, reduced ovarian follicles, reduced sperm count, cancer, and more. Click here for a more in-depth study of the impact of mattresses on these issues.
If you’re planning for a baby, use the opportunity to invest in a safer mattress for your infant—they are incrementally more expensive, but it should be as high on your priority list as a safer car seat. That said, when it comes to larger mattresses, shopping our way to safety isn’t always an option (for our budgets, or the environment): And it’s admittedly not as critical for those of us whose systems aren’t developing at such a rapid rate (plus, adult mattresses don’t have the same requirements for fire retardants). Safer mattress toppers are a great bridge product until you actually need to invest in a new bed. Check out the Mattress Matters report from Clean & Healthy NY to learn more about mattress parts and the pros and cons of different materials.
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The Mattress Landscape—The Good & The Bad
Clean & Healthy New York, a nonprofit environmental health organization, has been leading research and consumer advocacy around harmful chemicals in furniture and other products for years. Their 2011 report on crib mattresses found that only a handful of companies produced mattresses made from non-toxic materials. Most manufacturers used chemical flame retardants and most were reluctant to disclose exactly what makes up the mattresses that we lay our babies on night after night.
Friends of mine expecting their first child in June just sent me their baby registry. Because I’m something of a toxin detective, I looked into their choice of crib mattress. I could see right away why they chose it: The manufacturer played up the use of soybean foam, as if the fact that soybeans were involved meant the whole mattress was safe, nontoxic, and “green.” But this foam may emit harmful VOCs—volatile organic compounds—which can irritate eyes, nose and throat, cause headaches and cause cancer. And it is covered in vinyl, which a plastic that employs toxic chemicals throughout its production, including cancer-causing chemicals, asthma triggers, and developmental toxins. Were my friends at fault for choosing a bad mattress? No way. The company making this product and companies using similar tactics should be hung out to dry. It’s bad enough that they make a toxic product for babies, but to imply that it’s safer than it really is? That’s inexcusable.
Finding a good, safer mattress can be tough for consumers, even those who are trying to read between the lines. But there is good news: Flammability standards are changing, and companies are responding to the growing consumer demand for safer mattresses. Some of the leaders in mattress manufacturing are not using toxic flame retardant chemicals, but instead are using safer materials and barrier covers that are naturally flame resistant, like wool. And though the majority of companies still have a ways to go on transparency, consumers looking for safer products have more options than before. “Brands and retailers now realize they have to be much more accountable to consumers for the chemicals in their products,” noted Bev Thorpe at Clean Production Action, an organization that designs and delivers strategic solutions for green chemicals and environmentally preferable products. “Businesses need to know the chemicals in their products and take immediate action to substitute out all the hazardous materials. More importantly they need to publicly disclose what specific actions they are taking. ”
WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO SHOP OUR WAY TO SAFETY
There are coalitions doing the important work of changing policy, so that our long-term health comes first and we can make decisions for our households without doing reams of research. While we’re working hard at Beautycounter to change the safety standard for personal care products, Mind The Store is mobilizing to change policy for all consumer products, and pushing companies to put consumers first. Sign up for their emails, follow them on Facebook and Twitter, and spread the word.
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MORE TIPS FOR BUYING A MATTRESS:
ASK HARD QUESTIONS. In general look for a mattress company that describes what they use for all components of the mattress, from the core to the padding to the cover. And ask them specifically if they “use chemicals to meet flammability standards.” (Asking that way will help you get the response you need; otherwise they might just tell you they’re meeting the legal requirements but not tell you how.) If the answer is “treating the mattress with flame retardant chemicals,” or something similar, you might want to move on. Check out the Mattress Matters report from Clean & Healthy NY to learn more about mattress parts and the pros and cons of different materials.
IGNORE MEANINGLESS CLAIMS. Not unlike the cosmetics industry, words like “natural,” “eco” and “green” can be used by any mattress manufacturer to mean almost anything. Even “organic” mattresses can have very little organic content… and it might be covered in vinyl. Watch out for meaningless certifications too: the polyurethane foam industry created their own certification, CertiPur, to make their products look better. This seal of approval verifies that the product is free of chemicals that are already banned or restricted, or chemicals that aren’t even used in the production of foam. Gee, thanks.
SUPPORT RETAILERS WHO ARE DOING THE RIGHT THING. For example, The Clean Bedroom, an online retailer with a few brick and mortar locations, offers a selection of brands that it assures “are made with materials found in nature: wool, cotton, all natural rubber, vegetable derivatives.” In addition, they add: “No chemical flame retardants. No PBDEs. No blended latex. No soy-based foam.”
SAFER BABY MATTRESSES 101
Forget about splurging on a fancy crib: Put your dollars into your baby’s mattress. Choose one that’s free from latex, vinyl, soy-based foam, and chemical flame retardants like PBDEs. Whenever possible, pick a company that uses materials like wool, cotton, and all natural rubber instead. Here, the brands that won our wallets—and a couple more that are well-reviewed on the safety front.
KEEP IN MIND:
Check the Mattress Matters report for more information on the safer baby mattress landscape, as there are a lot of meaningless claims in the market. Not unlike the cosmetics industry, words like “natural,” “eco” and “green” can be used by any mattress manufacturer to mean almost anything. Even “organic” mattresses can have very little organic content… and it might be covered in vinyl. Watch out for meaningless certifications too: The polyurethane foam industry created their own certification, CertiPur, to make their products look better. This seal of approval verifies that the product is free of chemicals that are already banned or restricted, or chemicals that aren’t even used in the production of foam. Gee, thanks.
Besides Naturepedic and Lullaby Earth (a secondary line from Naturepedic that is safer, though not organic), these are two other brands that come highly recommended:
Vivetique: These are slightly more expensive $300+, but are crafted from natural latex, wool, and organic cotton.
White Lotus: These are expensive ($400-$500), but they’re handmade in the United States using 18-20 layers of cotton.
SAFER MATTRESSES AND MATTRESS TOPPERS 101
Tossing our current mattress certainly isn’t an option for most of us (plus, it’s terrible for landfills)—fortunately, adult systems aren’t as fragile as babies, and our beds don’t need to meet the same (often toxic) flame-resistant standards, which means this sits lower on the priority list. When it’s time to invest in a new one, by all means go organic and non-toxic—in the interim, a mattress cover is a great stop-gap.