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Are You Sleeping on a Toxic Mattress?

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Disturbing reports are linking memory foam mattresses to dangerous health conditions, even fatalities. Find out why -- and what you can do about it.

mother and daughter on toxic mattress
Most mattresses do contain toxins. The difference is, memory foam mattresses are made mostly from chemicals never tested on humans.

And while data on memory foam is scarce, many people have been complaining of sore throat, fatigue, headache, bloody nose, diarrhea, nausea, sweating, swollen red and itchy eyes, even heart attack-like symptoms -- all within a few days of purchasing memory foam. Even pets experience these physical side-effects. Manufacturers do warn customers that memory foam emits a chemical (but temporary) odor, which some find "unpleasant," but reports have shown people getting very sick from it.

No doubt about it, memory foam mattresses are comfy. They're firm, conform to the shape of your body while you sleep and supposedly contain dust-mite resistance material (allegedly great for kids with asthma). But disturbing reports have emerged on the dangerous health hazards of memory foam -- especially for children.

Your basic mattress is made of latex, air, water and various natural and chemical fibers. But memory foam mattresses are made from polyurethane foam. This material emits volatile compounds that can cause respiratory problems and skin irritation. What's more, formaldehyde (a chemical in the adhesives that hold the mattress together) has been linked to lung, nose and throat cancers. Memory foam is also loaded with cotton pesticides and flame-retardant toxic chemicals, which can cause cancer and nervous system disorders.

Check out some customer testimonials.

The problem is, even though research from an Atlanta-based lab found that memory foam emits 61 toxic chemicals into the air (including carcinogens) according to chemists at Duke University, there is not enough data collected on memory foam to dissuade people from buying it.

These scary health conditions are becoming a widespread problem -- and many parents have children who are reacting to memory foam in their beds and cribs -- and they don't know the bed is the cause.

So is memory foam off-limits? Dr. Cara Natterson to fill us in.

ML: Are mattresses hazardous to our health?

Dr. Cara: There is no proven health risk from the substances in mattresses, mostly because tracking their long-term effects is virtually impossible. Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University, says there's simply not enough data to determine whether low levels of these chemicals will eventually make people sick.

ML: Since the majority of mattresses today are made using a variety of petroleum-based chemicals, foams, plastics and controversial flame retardants, is the solution to buy only organic mattresses?

Dr. Cara: Maybe. But critics also often point out that "organic" mattresses aren't necessarily pristine either. For instance, sometimes the cotton used to make mattresses is organic, but the other components are not. If you search the Internet for long enough, you can find someone (not necessarily scientists, and often only consumers) to say something bad about just about every kind of mattress.

ML: One website said many manufacturers like Simmons, Sealy, and Tempur-Pedic won't divulge their flame-retardant formulas because they are considered "trade secrets." So how are we supposed to know what we're buying?
Dr. Cara: "Trade secrets" are used to protect the ingredients in many products, from mattresses to shampoos. Many people would like to know what's in the "trade secret" because then (and only then) they can make a decision as to whether the product seems sufficiently safe. But as it stands, the law protects trade secrets.

ML: Is the answer to not buy flame-resistant mattresses?

Dr. Cara: No. Flame retardants are very important. If there is a household fire, flame retardants slow the progression of fire inside the house. Without flame retardants, the risk of injury or death from fire increases significantly. The issue here is to figure out what flame retardant is in and of itself safe. Most people worry about PBDEs. There are many PBDE-free flame retardants, but I personally worry that some of these alternatives haven't been well-enough studied. 

ML: What should pregnant women be sleeping on?

Dr. Cara: If pregnant women are concerned about toxins, an organic mattress is likely less chemical-laden than a non-organic one. But it's not necessarily toxin-free. People will have to do their own research in order to determine which type of mattress they are comfortable buying.

ML: If you can't afford a "green" mattress, is there anything you can do to make sure your baby is safe on a regular mattress? Should you wrap the mattress in something like rubber sheeting?

Dr. Cara: I don't think this has been studied specifically. I can only imagine that any protective layer -- whether it is rubber sheeting or a regular mattress pad and sheet -- provides a barrier so that we are less "exposed" to chemicals within mattresses.

Check out more on mattress safety.

Do you think mattresses are toxic?

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73 comments so far | Post a comment now
Kristen March 20, 2009, 6:41 AM

We just went through this ourselves and after A LOT of research decided on organic mattresses for our children. Dr. Cara is correct that not all “organic” or “natural” mattresses are free from chemicals, thats why you have to do your research. Their are only 2 kinds of true organic mattresses that we found, one is from and the other is from savvy rest, both provide testing on their products to prove they are chemical free AND both are made right here in the US in chemical free factories in order to ensure no cross contamination. We ended up going with savvy rest and we are so happy we did. We will NEVER be sleeping on convential mattresses again!

Bob Villa March 20, 2009, 11:46 AM has wealth of information on what chemicals
are really in a mattress

Chuck Norris March 20, 2009, 12:12 PM

Whoever wrote this didn’t do his or her homework. The goverment stepped in and made it a law that mattresses has to have flame-resistant material. The goverment checks every mattress sold in this country to make sure it’s safe.

Kristen March 20, 2009, 12:20 PM

Chuck Norris, you are wrong about this. You can legally get a flame retardent free mattress with doctors note. Although the convential mattress companies will be of no help to you but if you want to buy an organic flame retardent free bed then you have to have a doctors note. Organic mattresses use wool as their flame retardent but some people don’t even want that due to allergies.

Liz March 20, 2009, 1:21 PM

I don’t feel that this article has enough information. References to actual studies would be nice.

maryn March 21, 2009, 12:36 AM

Just as well- the Tempur-pedic we got a few years ago has turned into mush. And it sleeps HOT. I’m going to get rid of mine as soon as we can afford to.

Vistar March 23, 2009, 10:57 AM

First, polyurethane foam, as used in mattresses, does not contain or emit formaldehyde. If you have a research study that found formaldehyde, please share it. Second, PBDEs are not used in mattresses. In fact, the new CPSC regulation requiring sleep sets to be resistant to open flame ignition does not require fire retardants. High loft rayon or treated cotton batting is often used as a barrier layer. The rest of the mattress/boxspring needs no treatment. Prior to the CPSC reg, mattresses did not require any fire retardant treatment at all. Please research this more carefully and then post the facts. This story creates unnecessary worry. And what’s the photo of coffee beans on the mattress all about? What does that have to do with the report?

Rick March 28, 2009, 10:23 PM

Vistar is right. This is completely alarmist nonsense. The mattress industry is HEAVILY regulated. The next thing is that these allegedly “organic” mattresses are totally overhyped and often fail to delivery any allergy benefit and are not durable. You want a good mattress? Buy a natural latex bed that is certified non-allergenic by an outside company. That’s what this article should be about.

Matt March 31, 2009, 5:40 PM

My research into memory foam mattresses hasn’t shown any scientific evidence that there are any health detriments. This is all just supposition. The two places I called and said those chemicals are linked to the production of the mattresses and that those chemicals are not released in normal use.

Melanie April 28, 2009, 11:56 PM

As a consumer who bought a memory foam mattress for the comfort, I can tell you that I had to return it because there was an odor emitting from it that burned my throat. Granted, I do have mild asthma and seem to be much more sensitive to this type of thing than my husband. He personally noticed an odor, but it wasn’t strong enough to bother him. We even tried airing the mattress out for a week, but to no avail. We finally had to exchange it for a conventional Sealey mattress!

Jackson Wallace May 21, 2009, 5:52 AM

I personally know of a case where a memory form mattress may have contributed to a major neurological illness, the kind that results in DISABILITY and DEATH.
So don’t tell me this is overblown. You spend one third of your life on a mattress, breathing in its contents. Poisoners should and will be prosecuted and sued TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW. End of story.

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