It’s enough to give you nightmares, but the sad truth is that some of the materials in your mattress may be harming your health.
You only suds up with natural shampoos. You’ve spent your bottom dollar to eat organic, and you wouldn’t be caught dead using conventional laundry soap. But despite all those efforts, your trusty mattress could be toxic. Potential allergens run rampant in the mattress industry, and some of the chemicals in your bed may be linked to dangerous illnesses such as asthma and even cancer.
Considering you spend about one-third of your life in bed, the stuff you sleep on is pretty important—and the contents of your mattress could pose a serious threat based on sheer exposure time, according to author Debra Lynn Dadd. The best remedy here is education—and rest assured, there are safe mattress alternatives out there to improve the health of your body as well as the planet.
Perhaps the most dire health risks come from polyurethane foam products purchased before 2005. These contain high levels of polybrominated diphenyl esthers, or PBDEs, which are fire-retardant chemicals linked to impaired memory and learning, thyroid problems and liver damage. In addition to mattresses, polyurethane foam—prized for its softness and ability to conform to your body shape—is also common in pillows.
Even foam beds and pillows made after 2005, which typically don’t contain the most toxic PBDEs, aren’t healthy options. They’re usually made with petroleum, which can irritate your respiratory system as well as your skin. When author and organic mattress maker Walter Bader sent a memory foam mattress in to a lab for testing in 2005, the lab reported finding 61 chemicals, some of them carcinogenic. Beyond the foam, mattress glue often contains formaldehyde, which can trigger asthma and allergies and is linked to cancer of the throat and lungs.
And although babies may be even more susceptible to dangerous chemicals invading their fragile systems, crib mattresses have an abysmal track record. According to research conducted by Clean and Healthy New York, 72 percent of crib mattresses studied contained at least one potentially toxic chemical. Nearly one-fourth of the varieties tested contained proprietary fire retardants, water guards or antibacterial treatments, and thus did not divulge specific ingredients.
The good news is that the market is getting better. Twenty percent of the mattresses in the Clean and Healthy New York study did not contain dangerous chemicals, and safe options exist today that weren’t around a few years ago.
So what’s the best way to protect yourself and your family? It isn’t really enough just to look for organic ingredients, because even products with the “organic” label may use toxins for fireproofing, or have organic cotton on top but icky foam underneath, mingling with the springs that prop up that all-natural exterior.
Consumer Reports recommends looking for products with the “Oeko-Tek Standard 100” label, only sported by mattresses free of many of the worst-offending toxins. They also note that hypoallergenic mattresses are typically made with natural latex instead of chemical-laden synthetics. Mother Jones recommends Savvy Rest brand beds, which come with a hefty price tag but are among the safest options. If you can’t afford to replace your old mattress, at least keep it well-covered to minimize exposure. A thick, organic mattress pad just might help you rest better—and healthier—at night.