Forget Monsters Under the Bed, What About the Monsters Hiding in Your Mattress?

10/19/2011 11:35 am ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011

You may be tucking your little one in with sneaky intruders each night -- and magic monster spray won't make them go away! Each time your baby lays down to sleep on a waterproof polyurethane foam mattress, she's being exposed to hazardous chemicals. And considering that children spend over half of their early life in contact with a mattress, it's imperative to arm yourself with the knowledge you need to protect them.

What's Hiding Inside

Polyurethane foam is a problem from the start. It typically contains catalysts, surfactants, formaldehyde, benzene and toluene -- all culprits for the potential health hazards listed in the materials safety data sheet (MSDS) posted by manufacturers. The side effects include cardiac arrhythmia, breathlessness, chest discomfort, irritation of mucous membranes, headache, coughing, asthma-like allergic reaction, weakness, fatigue, nausea -- and I could go on! Why would we subject our babies to any of these kinds of potential problems? When I whisper, "Sleep tight," to my baby, I'm not referring to his lungs or throat.

The other problem with polyurethane foam is that it's extremely flammable, and when it does burn, it burns hot and fast. To combat this hazard, the mattress is drenched in flame retardants, both brominated (PBDE) and chlorinated (TDCP/TCEP). These compounds have been linked to reduced IQ, learning disorders, reduced fertility, thyroid disruption and cancer. So, how do you know if your mattress is full of toxic flame retardants? You don't. Most manufacturers don't even disclose their ingredients.

You Can Judge a Mattress by its Cover

And if the mattress itself isn't frightening enough, there's the whole subject of mattress covers. We all know that babies can generate a lot of wetness while they sleep -- thus the need for a waterproof cover. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the number one choice for manufacturers because of its well-known waterproofing wonders. But the benefits certainly don't outweigh the risks. To begin with, it's not a soft plastic, so phthalates are added to make it more pliable. Shockingly, phthalates can make up to 30 percent of the PVC surface of a typical baby mattress!

But that's only one concern with PVC. Let's not forget the lead, cadmium and biocides. In reality, it's a veritable toxic soup of chemical additives just waiting to off-gas into your baby's developing body.

There is a Solution

Don't worry, there are other options out there! But I won't kid you, they're not cheap. Organic natural fill mattresses can cost $200-$300, sometimes more (Amish communities make some of the most affordable ones). But I'd much rather sacrifice something else in my life than risk my baby's health. I suspect you would too.

• Organic cotton is a great filling material for mattresses since it is natural, non-toxic, firm and breathable. Organic cotton is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or GMOs too, so it's a healthier alternative all the way around. Organic cotton is less flammable than polyurethane foam to begin with, which allows the use of more creative flame retardants.

• Wool is commonly used in organic mattresses because it's inherently less flammable. Dust mites don't grow well in it, and it handles moisture well, too.

• Natural latex rubber is another option. Source your mattress carefully though, choosing one with no chemicals added during production. Latex protein has also been linked with allergies in some people, so use caution.

• Non-halogenated flame retardants are less likely to persist in the environment and actually degrade more easily than their toxic counterparts. And they still provide the same level of flame retardant safety.

• Low density polyethylene makes a nice substitute for PVC. It has a simple makeup and doesn't require additives to make it soft and pliable. Polyethylene is also easy-to-clean and stain resistant.

• Wool pads are great for non-waterproof mattresses because wool is moisture-resistant and dries quickly.

So, Where to Begin?

If you're in the market for a new mattress, begin with brands certified by GreenGuard. If you're worried about the mattress you're already using, contact the manufacturer directly and insist on a full list of materials. Ask how they achieve flammability standards and whether they add halogenated flame retardants? Then ask them to publicly disclose this information to all consumers. Be persistent! The more often they hear from concerned parents, the more likely we'll begin to see a shift in the market.

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