The public, not only in America, but in Europe and the rest of the world, has become keenly aware of the use of chemicals in commonly used items. One major industrial firm1 used the slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry” until dropping it in response to public concerns over the effects of many chemical compounds on health and the environment.
It has become fashionable to deride or hold in suspicion anything labeled “chemical” or “synthetic.” But this is the extreme position, and it ignores some general facts. For instance, strictly speaking, every substance is a chemical, has a chemical composition, and is tagged with a chemical name. Vitamin C is ascorbic acid. Table salt is sodium chloride. And water is dihydrogen monoxide. If that is not enough, every organism, plant or animal, has a taxonomic designation (Latin scientific name), and ingredient lists using these terms can be intimidating.
The real question is, “Which chemicals are safe?” When we ask that question, it usually means man-made, engineered chemicals. It can also mean a few natural elements a used in specific ways.
Chemicals found in bedding (mattresses, beds and foundations, pillows, sheets and blankets) can be constituent or additive. Constituent chemicals are part of the bedding itself, what it is made of. In a mattress, these make up cushioning and support components, insulation and linings, and covers. Additive chemicals are applied or infused into the mattress materials/components for specific purposes, such as temperature control, coloring, fragrance, microbe inhibition, and flame retardation.
Memory foam was developed from polyurethane. These are polymers, chains of oily molecules called polyols. Originally, the polyols were all derived from petroleum. Processing makes the polyols link together into long chains, and chemicals are added to make it expand into foam. Other chemicals are added to make polyurethane into memory foam.
Two concerns are the processing of the foams and out-gassing. Processing of foams used to release several emissions into the environment, but public and regulatory pressure has minimized that. Many people simply object to the use of fossil fuels, citing the environmental impact of drilling for, transporting, and refining crude oil.
The other concern is the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the foam in the bedroom. Some of these may have been generally harmful; some have unpleasant odors.
More mattress foams use plant oils for polyols. However, this was only a small percent of the composition. Research has focused on reducing the amount of petroleum polyols in polyurethane and memory foam, but I am unable to reliably verify claims by some mattress manufacturers that most or all of their foam is plant-based.
The greatest and most serious concerns are over the toxicity of additive chemicals, especially those used to meet federal flammability standards, especially 16 CFR Parts 1632 and 1633 of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) codes.
Before 2009, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were often used in mattress foams to prevent flashover (exploding in flame). That has been discontinued, and foams are protected by being wrapped in fabric fire socks designed to be flame barriers. One is wool, natural but also expensive.
For less expensive solutions, many companies use boric acid powder in the fabric (usually cotton). That is toxic enough, but to meet the higher open-flame standard antimony is added. The controversy is about how toxic antimony and boric acid are, and how much of these escapes from the fire sock to the surface of the mattress.
A less toxic or non-toxic alternative is rayon infused with silica. The silica causes the rayon to soften and ball up when exposed to flame, stopping the spread of the fire. Some persons are concerned that silica is an irritant, that it might escape and cause respiratory problems. Others are concerned about the environmental impact of manufacturing rayon from wood fibers.
A word of caution is offered by one source on Fox News Health:
“Meets technical bulletin 117,” sounds like a seal of approval, but this label, which can be found on organic mattresses too, actually means the product contains harmful fire retardant chemicals.
The International Sleep Products Association (ISPA), a manufacturers group, is working to keep bedding companies from being subjected to the expense of testing of chemicals they don’t use. But they are also trying to get Congress to pass reform of current chemical regulations so that they are not subject to an uneven patchwork of regulations.
However, one mattress manufacturer openly addresses the issue of the flammability standard on its website. Strobel Technologies answers the ISPA paper, Myths and Facts, questioning whether there are really any natural solutions to meeting federal standards. In essence, they put the blame on the standards themselves:
Common sense should tell us there are no natural or chemical free systems that will pass the two-foot wide blowtorch open flame test for 70 seconds.
Besides fire retardants, there are concerns about chemical applications for other purposes, such as sizing for cover fabrics, making performance fabrics, etc. While these may not noticeably bother most of us, there are many chemically sensitive individuals. If you are one of these, you may be able to get a written notice from a physician allowing you to purchase mattresses with no chemical fire retardants whatsoever.
We are still learning about the effects of modern chemicals. The more we learn, the better we can weigh risks against benefits for better living.
“Mattress industry works to fend off unnecessary chemical regulations”
“Naturepedic Founder Speaks at “Safer Chemicals” Symposium” (November 13, 2013)
“Toxic Chemicals in Furniture Linked to Cancer and Other Health Risks” (November 28, 2012)
“GOTS Wins Civil Action against Mattress Companies” (May 3, 2016)
The Mattress & Sleep Company
“The Truth About Chemicals”
Fox News Health
“6 tips to buying a safe crib mattress” By Julie Revelant (Published November 08, 2015)
This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 15th, 2016 at 9:14 AM and is filed under bedrooms, beds, buying a mattress, chemicals, cover, fabrics, fibers, foam, health, mattress covers, mattresses, memory foam, PCMs, Phase Change Materials, pillows, plastic, polyurethane, upholstery, vinyl, wool . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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