Although new sleep-deprived parents might argue that this can't possibly be true, according to the National Sleep Foundation, a two year-old child will have spent more time sleeping than awake, and on average 40% of childhood is spent asleep. Considering how important sleep is for children, impacting both mental and physical development, a safe healthy sleep environment is vital. With that in mind, it's shocking (but true) that most conventional kids mattresses are chock-full of dangerous chemicals like flame-retardants, formaldehyde and VOCs that have been linked to allergies, asthma, hormone problems, autism and cancer. There are healthy, green mattresses out there but they require a little investigation and label-reading to find. Keep reading to learn more about why you need to pay special attention to your sleep environment and learn how to find a safe, eco-friendly mattress.
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The chemical makeup of traditional mattresses
In recent years, mattresses have usually been made with metal springs sandwiched between layers of polyurethane foam, or with just plain old foam. The problem is that polyurethane foam is made from petroleum which can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into a sleep environment. In fact, a recent study completed by a team of environmental engineers from the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin found that high levels of chemical emissions result from traditional crib mattresses. After analyzing the foam padding in crib mattresses, researchers found that the typical crib mattress releases, “significant amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)” with new mattresses releasing four times as many VOCs as older mattresses. This study also found that body heat increased emissions, and as we all know, most babies run hot. The study detected other chemicals in mattresses as well, including linalool and limonene, both known to cause skin allergies. Then, because polyurethane foam is highly flammable, mattress manufacturers use flame retardants to keep the mattress fire-free, which only adds to the chemical makeup. Most surfaces or mattress coverings are also made with synthetic materials that contain more chemicals.
Health issues associated with traditional mattresses
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), VOCs, such as the type that off gas from a traditional mattress, can cause, “eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system.” The EPA points out that key symptoms associated with VOC exposure can include, “conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue and dizziness.” Various research shows that flame retardants can affect fertility success, and result in babies with lower IQs and attention problems. Cancer, male infertility, male birth defects, autism, obesity and early puberty in girls have all been linked to flame retardant exposure. If human health effects of mattress chemicals don’t freak you out, consider the toll these chemicals take on the planet’s health. NRDC states that during manufacturing, use and disposal, chemicals such as VOCs and flame retardants are released into the environment, “where they can be found in air, water, and wildlife. They are carried on air currents as far away as the Arctic where they pollute native human populations, marine mammals, and even polar bears.”
Are flame retardants necessary?
Clearly, no parent wants their child harmed in a fire, but flame retardants packed full of chemicals are not only toxic, but unnecessary. Back in 1975, California passed law TB 117 which required that all of the foam used to manufacture furniture, including mattresses to be flame retardant and then manufacturers in all 50 states adopted this policy. This is why so many mattress makers spray their mattresses with flame-retardant chemicals. However, in truth, you do not need to use chemicals to make mattresses fire retardant, they simply must meet standards that ensure they’re fire retardant. Some greener mattress companies, such as My Green Mattress, are making fire-safe mattresses without the use of toxic flame retardants with practices such as quilting wool, a naturally flame retardant material, into the organic cotton cover of their mattress. Another reason to avoid flame retardants? Some research shows that flame retardants may actually result in deadlier fires. Yikes!
Photo by My Green Mattress
Features of greener mattresses
Some mattress companies are making much safer, greener mattresses nowadays. Following are some key eco-features these more innovative mattress companies use. Safer materials such as natural wool and certified organic cotton are being used by many companies now. Mattresses made with latex, a naturally hypoallergenic, dust mite resistant, and antimicrobial material that helps inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold, and mildew are another green mattress innovation. Some companies are using recycled packaging and even have recycling programs in place.
How to shop for a greener mattress
Shopping for a greener mattress can be tough. There’s a lot of information to weed through and some companies may be less than forthcoming about their methods and materials. Use the following list to help you shop smart.
- If a company says they use “organic” cotton or another organic material, make sure it’s GOTS Certified and that when asked the company can show you their official organic certificate.
- No harmful chemicals should be used to make the mattresses.
- The company should use natural wool, not plastic-based fiber as a fire barrier.
- Look for non-allergenic materials.
- Find a company using natural, not synthetic latex.
- Choose a company who uses renewable materials and other resources wherever possible.
- Ask companies about their third party independent testing and verification regarding safety and chemicals.
- Look for companies who use GMO-free sources for materials.
- Ask about the company’s recycling policies, including whether or not they have a recycling policy in place for used mattresses.
- Consider a locally made greener mattress. Transport and shipping mattresses uses a lot of resources and creates carbon-emissions.
Where to find a greener mattress
The companies below offer safer, greener mattresses with varying features and varying price ranges. Right now, many eco-friendly mattress companies are hyper expensive, but some are semi-affordable and with time, as more people demand safer mattresses, prices will go down.
- My Green Mattress: Offers mattresses in twin size all the way up to California King, other goodies like pillows and adjustable beds, plus are reasonably priced.
- Keetsa: Makes mattresses aplenty and are committed to environmentally sound practices.
- Naturepedic: Offers crib, kid, and adult mattresses, plus they’re well recognized as an eco-mattress leader.
- Hastens Beds: Out of Sweden, this company makes mattresses by hand using only natural materials like horsehair, flax, wool, steel and pine.
- Pure Rest: This company offers many natural mattresses and go to fairly extreme lengths to keep your mattress chemical free, including not even hiring people who live with a smoker.
- Savvy Rest: Only offers mattresses that are made of natural latex rubber, certified organic wool or certified organic cotton.
- Coco-Mat: Only uses natural materials from renewable sources, such as coco fiber, natural rubber, wool, cotton, sea weed, horsehair, silk, linen, wood and goose down.
- Visit Healthy Child’s mattress page or Home Green Home to see more mattress options.