As we discussed in our earlier post this week, off-gassing of VOCs and industrial chemicals from a variety of sources in our homes can cause a slow but cumulative buildup of harmful agents in our bodies. The effects of these types of contamination are often difficult to study, due primarily to the extreme lengths of time it takes for symptoms and effects to show themselves.
Our beds and linens are some of the most chemical laden things we are exposed to in our homes, primarily because of fire retardants. Not only are mattresses covered in flame retardants, those chemicals are sprayed on and not bound to the mattress in any way, meaning there is essentially nothing stopping them from off-gassing.
In California, where flammability regulation is stricter than in most of the nation, a study found that expectant mothers had a higher level of exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs) than anywhere else in the world. These flame retardants, which were largely banned in California in 2004, were found in concentrations 10 to 100 times higher than those found in Europe and in Asia. They were, in fact, the highest levels ever recorded, 2 to 3 times higher than those found in other parts of the U.S. (Which, if you do the math, means that American exposure is already shockingly high). These chemicals interfere with development and can lead to lower IQs, and are also toxic to the liver, thyroid, and nerve development.
Polyurethane foam is another component in mattresses that is often best avoided, if possible. It is made from nonrenewable petrochemicals and can emit VOCs, which have been linked to respiratory irritation and a host of other health problems. Over time, foam also sheds tiny particles that become part of your household dust and are easily inhaled. Often, manufacturers are failing to disclose the chemicals they use to treat polyurethane foam for flammability.
One of the best ways to limit your exposure to these chemical compounds is to invest in a mattress made of natural materials, such as wool, cotton, hemp, bamboo, or natural latex. In some of these, enough wool is used that no flame retardant chemicals are necessary to pass flame retardant regulations.
In many cases, all-natural mattresses are treated with boric acid, a naturally occurring substance that, while harsh, is also one of the least toxic options for flame retardant treatments. Often, you can opt out of even using that, but it is still safer than synthetic chlorinated and brominated chemicals.
There are a range of options available on the market for healthy mattresses and bedspreads, with the most expensive often being completely free of any flame retardant chemicals due to a high concentration of wool. Other, mid-range options make amenable compromises, such as adding the aforementioned boric acid. These will also generally be cheaper, as they use a combination of wool and natural, organic latex, which is cheaper.
A full investigation of these factors before you buy is always a great idea. You spend up to a third of your life sleeping. As our bodies detoxify themselves each night, the last thing any of us need to do is add more to the job.