In recent decades, most mattresses have been made either with metal springs sandwiched between layers of polyurethane foam, or with just foam. In showrooms, salespeople typically focus on firmness, talking about the number of springs or the density of the foam. What they rarely bring up -- but what has become increasingly common knowledge among consumers -- is that polyurethane foam is made from petroleum, and that it can emit volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.'s), which have been linked to respiratory irritation and other health problems, according to both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Salespeople are also unlikely, green-minded advocates say, to talk about the chemical makeup of fire retardants. In the 1970s, when cigarettes were the main cause of mattress fires, polyurethane foam was itself seen as a retardant, because cigarettes don't make foam ignite. Open flame, on the other hand, does, and in later years, when candles and children playing with matches were the bigger threats, manufacturers began treating some foam with polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or P.B.D.E.'s. This type of fire retardant began to worry environmentalists and health experts as scientists found them accumulating in places as diverse as seal blubber in Greenland and the breast milk of American women.
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