Parenting these days is tough enough without having to worry about toxins affecting our precious kids while they sleep. But we do worry, and for good reason. Conventional mattresses are typically made from synthetic materials such as Polyurethane (PU) foam, chemical flame retardants, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), additives like phthalates, and formaldehyde and other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
Ever since my little girl endured months of severe, chronic respiratory distress as an infant that was later linked to toxic chemicals in our home, I sometimes feel like I’m floating in a sea of chemical acronyms. It can be difficult and frustrating trying to identify truly safe products and to determine which companies I can trust. Sometimes I think about how much time I spend researching these things and even begin to question whether the investment of time and resources is worth it, when I’d rather be playing with my kids. And then I look at my little girl, now a healthy, thriving two year old, breathing and developing normally, and I remember that it is worth every moment and every penny.
Because of my family’s experience with the impact of these chemicals on kids’ health, and the extensive research it has led me to do, I now spend a good portion of each day talking with parents about mattresses and bedding and I hear the same questions over and over: Are organic mattresses really better/safer? What if I can’t afford one – is there anything I can do to minimize my family’s exposure to toxins found in most mattresses and bedding?
The answers are yes, and yes! The good news is that when it comes to mattresses and bedding, while there are a handful of really nasty materials to steer clear of, there are also lots of safer alternatives available to fit every family’s budget.
Top 4 Toxic Materials to Avoid in Mattresses:
1) Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): The vinyl surface of most traditional mattresses is a hard plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC – aka “the poison plastic”), which is made from a toxic combination of chlorine, petroleum and other chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, reproductive harm, and a host of other health problems. Hormone-disrupting phthalates, which are also recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as probable carcinogens, are then generally added to make the plastic more flexible. Even some “organic mattresses” on the market are made with just a small amount of organic cotton filling and then covered with toxic phthalate- & PVC-laden vinyl.
2) Poylurethane (PU): PU foam makes up the majority of the core (filling) for most mass-produced mattresses (including memory foam mattresses). This material is very cheap and easy to work with and has therefore replaced most of the natural cotton batting that was previously used as filling for traditional mattresses. PU “uses several hazardous intermediates and creates numerous hazardous by-products, including phosgene, isocyanates, toluene, diamines, and the ozone-depleting gases methylene chloride and CFCs, as well as halogenated flame retardants and pigments” (source: Greenpeace.org). As if that weren’t bad enough, over time, the foam breaks down into small, dust-like particles that can easily become airborne and release volatile organic compounds (VOC), which can cause respiratory disruption, such as eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and allergic reactions (source: Healthychild.org).
3) Flame Retardant Chemicals: Because of its highly flammable nature, PU foam sold in the U.S. is required to be blended or treated with flame-retardant chemicals (aka “
the asbestos of our time”). The life-saving efficacy of this regulation, which was primarily put in place because adults in the 1960s and 1970s were falling asleep with lit cigarette in hand, has been called into question (when compared to the risk of the exposure of tens of millions of children to these chemicals) for over 30 years. In a 1977 article addressing the flammability standards adopted in 1973 for children’s pajamas, mattresses, mattress pads and carpets, Chemist Arlene Blum et al wrote “the risk from cancer might be very much higher than the risk from being burned. Flame retardants (and most other large volume industrial chemicals) either have not been tested or have not been adequately tested for carcinogenicity” (source: Sciencemag.org). Despite early scientific warnings such as this one, the industry standard compounds used for complying with these regulations combine several of the approximately 175 flame-retardant chemicals now available, many of which are “brominated flame retardants” (BFRs), containing known and probable carcinogens (source: Slow Death by Rubber Duck).
And to top it all off, I learned recently that the chemicals used in both PU foam and chemical flame retardants are “magnets for fungus and bacteria. These organisms can off-gas some of the most toxic byproducts as they consume these very materials and chemicals” (source: safemama.com). Now that’s just plain gross!
4) Triclosan: It seems this anti-microbial is popping up everywhere these days, even mattresses! Why is that a problem? “Triclosan is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity. Low levels of triclosan may disrupt thyroid function. Wastewater treatment does not remove all of the chemical. Triclosan ends up in lakes, rivers and water sources, where it is very toxic to aquatic life.” (source: EWG.org). And what’s more, studies are now showing that those microbes (that the anti-microbials like Triclosan are going after) actually “play a critical role in human health” so all that effort to avoid them may not even pay off! (source: TheSmartMama.com)
Once I began learning about all of the nasty chemicals lurking in the traditional mattresses on store shelves (and up to that point, in my own kids’ beds, too), I couldn’t turn a blind eye. I had to find a better solution for the sake of my children’s health. And I’m happy to say that I have discovered many excellent alternatives. You just have to know what to look for. Here are some suggestions that I hope will help make your journey to selecting non-toxic bedding for your own family a little easier.
Top 5 Best Non-Toxic Bedding Materials:
1) GOTS Certified Organic Cotton: choosing certified organic cotton for mattresses and pillows is especially important because non-organic cotton batting retains a high level of pesticide residue which can then leach into the air and be inhaled by baby while sleeping
2) Wool is naturally water resistant (though not water-repellent), anti-microbial and repels dust mites and bed bugs. Certified Organic Wool is also free from insecticide residue, as the sheep providing the wool have not been chemically treated for flea prevention.
3) Natural Rubber Latex from the rubber tree is another good natural alternative to PU foam. Natural latex mattresses are popular because they are very comfortable and long-lasting. However, buying a latex mattress takes some extra research as there are so many different chemicals that may be introduced during its manufacturing. Even if the rubber used is derived naturally, you will want to make sure that it is not mixed with ammonia, toluene (a known carcinogen), sulfur or petro-chemicals while processing the raw natural rubber into foam. Finally, it is important to buy latex mattresses produced in the USA, as imports will have been sprayed with a variety of chemicals upon entry into the US.
4) Organic or Naturally-grown coconut coir (from the husk of the coconut) is another natural fiber that is gaining popularity as a mattress fill. In order to bond the fibers together, the coir is dipped into latex. So be sure and investigate the origin and make-up of the latex used, as described above when considering a coir mattress as well.
5) Food-Grade Polyethylene (PE) is not a natural material. It is a plastic made from petroleum products. However, many independent tests and the pyramid of plastics identify PE as one of the safest plastics available, as it has a very simple molecular structure that does not require chemical additives (as opposed to vinyl/PVC and polyurethane). In terms of safer plastics, only Polypropylene (PP) and some bio-plastics can claim similar or lower levels of toxicity than PE. So I have included it on the list and recommend it as a safer alternative to PVC or PU film if you desire a waterproof pad or mattress cover to protect your cotton mattress from water damage.
And now for the budget question: Because my kids spend more than 50% of their time sleeping or playing on their mattresses, I firmly believe that an organic mattress free of PVC, Triclosan, and flame retardant chemicals is a critical investment in my children’s health. In terms of cost, it makes it easier for me to digest when I think of it in terms of cost per month for the duration of time they’ll use it. For example, if I plan on using a crib mattress for 3 years so, then I would divide the difference in cost between a traditional and organic mattress by 36 months to determine the additional cost per month:
$259 (Non-Toxic Crib Mattress) – $99 (Traditional Crib Mattress) = difference of $160
That’s only $4.44 per month over 36 months! And if you plan on using the mattress for more than one child, that difference per month shrinks significantly. When I look at it that way, forking over the extra few dollars for a toxin-free mattress, mattress cover, or pillow is a little more palatable.
Can’t afford the additional costs or already own a traditional mattress and trying to avoid buying a replacement?
Here are some budget-friendly ideas to minimize exposure from a traditional mattress:
1) Air out your mattress outside, allowing it to off-gas before placing it in baby’s room
2) Cover the mattress with a waterproof polyethylene & cotton mattress cover to trap off-gassing chemicals. Be sure that your cover is not treated with flame retardant chemicals.
3) Use an organic/eco-wool mattress pad: a naturally flame resistant, breathable material that wicks away any moisture and provides a barrier between your child and the mattress.
4) When your child is ready tp begin sleeping on a pillow, splurge on an organic cotton or wool-filled pillow to ensure he/she is not exposed to flame retardants often found in pillows stuffed with polyfill or pesticide residues in conventional cotton batting.
5) Focus on overall air quality in children’s rooms:
Open windows regularly to get the air moving and let those toxins out!
Use house plants to improve indoor air quality (out of kids’ reach, of course!)
Use one or two carefully placed air purifiers. For example, we put a small air purifier in each child’s bedroom near their beds since they spend about 50% of their time in there , then we use house plants to improve air quality throughout the rest of the house.