Chemicals found in standard mattresses have harmful neurological effects. Fortunately, there are natural alternatives.

Does it feel like you have been doing everything right, but you’re still sick? You’ve switched to organic food, ditched plastic packaging and utensils, use organic beauty products, and even see a holistic healthcare professional — but there is still something toxic hanging around, throwing your immune system and hormones out of balance. Have you considered your health issues may be due to a toxic mattress?

We don’t think about our beds much; after all, we usually only buy one every several years. But the true culprit may be lying in the chemicals in your conventional mattress. They may seem inert, as we aren’t eating, drinking, or knowingly inhaling them, but the plethora of toxins lurking in your lush bed can off-gas and leak out into the air with devastating results.

Why Do Most Of Us Sleep On A Toxic Mattress?

Conventional mattresses are made from polyurethane, a flammable petroleum-based material. In 2007, a law was passed stating that all mattresses sold in the U.S.A. must be fire-retardant to the extent that they are resistant to blowtorches! We all love a good handyman, but who brings a blowtorch to bed? This law makes it very difficult to find a mattress free from toxic fire retardants, and many people needed a doctor’s prescription to buy one.

In California, however, furniture is no longer legally required to be manufactured with chemical flame retardants, thanks to a law passed in early 2014. While this doesn’t mean toxic mattresses are banned, it does make replacing old ones easier. The majority of green mattresses are now made from wool since wool has a high resistance to fire.

Toxic Mattresses and VOCs

Polyurethane mattresses are not only toxic because they require the use of flame retardants. The production of polyurethane itself emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which is particularly noticeable when you first buy them, and then this declines over time (ever wondered what “new car smell” is? It’s VOCs). Some VOCs, such as propanol and acetaldehyde, may be respiratory irritants. If you have a hypersensitivity condition such as asthma, then you could be more sensitive to levels usually considered safe.

Other VOCs, for example, triethylenediamine, have been shown to affect testicle and adrenal gland weight in rats. This may indicate endocrine-disrupting effects, and once again, your personal vulnerabilities and health history can make “safe” levels a no-go zone. Conventional toxic mattresses also emit isocyanates. These are powerful irritants to the eyes, gut lining, and respiratory tract, particularly in people with asthma. Isocyanates are known as sensitizers, meaning they can make us more sensitive to future exposure and to other chemicals.

Waking up in the middle of the night to cough, sneeze, or reach for your inhaler is not conducive to a good night’s sleep! Research has found that eight hours of broken sleep has the same negative effect on our cognitive performance as only sleeping for four hours. If even one night has this effect, as well as increased depression and fatigue, spending years with an irritating mattress could have a serious impact on your ability to live your best life.

How Flame Retardants Harm Your Health

Flame retardants are not our friends. In fact, they are even listed as one of the 17 “high-priority” categories of chemicals we must avoid reducing breast cancer risk. Breast cancer needs no introduction, being the most common form of cancer in Americans and the leading cause of death for women in their late 30s to early 50s. That’s not all; flame retardants are linked to a range of health problems, from respiratory irritation to thyroid diseases, and possibly even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

One fire-retardant category of chemicals is polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which includes penta-, octa-, and decaBDE. Both pentaBDE and octaBDE have not been produced in the USA since 2004, and U.S. manufacturing of decaBDE was ordered to end in 2013.

In some cases, mattresses contain organophosphate flame retardants. PDBEs are endocrine disruptors, chemicals which have harmful effects on hormonal balance, as exposure to them can reduce thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). A study on pregnant women found that higher levels of PDBEs were associated with lower TSH, and subclinical hyperthyroidism was more often found in women with the greatest PDBE concentrations. Even subclinical hyperthyroidism is linked to higher mortality rates, cardiac dysfunction, lower bone mineral density, and increased fracture risk. It is also a serious concern for future generations, as PBDEs are linked with poorer intelligence and attention scores in children exposed to them before birth, largely through their effects on thyroid hormones.

A Deeper Dive Into Flame Retardants

PDBEs are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because they are toxins that can stay around in the body for a long time. While most people can benefit from weight loss, as 71.4 percent of U.S. adults were overweight or obese in 2015-16, these POPs can be released rapidly as unwanted fat breaks down. Fortunately, fiber consumption may help to reduce reabsorption of them once they are expelled into the intestines by the liver. Sweating is another way to help ensure that PDBEs and other toxins get out and stay out! While they are difficult to excrete through urine, induced sweating speeds their clearance. Far-infrared saunas are more comfortable and effective than the traditional method.

What other chemicals are used as fire retardants in mattresses? Mother Jones reported that Ryan Trainer, president of the International Sleep Products Association, lists other culprits: toxic mattress as cotton treated with boric acid; antimony-containing modacrylic fiber; and melamine resin, a substance that contains formaldehyde.

Chronic exposures to boric acid, antimony, and formaldehyde each come with their own sets of problems. Boric acid is another respiratory and skin irritant, more so when skin is already damaged or there is already respiratory irritation. It may also cause neurological issues and male infertility; research on occupational exposure found that men working with boric acid had lower sperm counts and motility. Babies and fetuses are the most vulnerable to boric acid, with toxic effects seen at far lower levels. As mattresses get older and the oils in them dry out, more boric acid is released.

Formaldehyde And Its Connection To SIDS

Antimony, along with arsenic and phosphorous, may even be implicated in SIDS. A combination of these and baby’s body temperature, sweat, and spitting up can encourage the growth of a common household fungus, Scopulariopsis brevicaulis. As the fungus grows and feeds off these substances, it produces the nerve gases arsine, phosphine, and stibine, which are especially deadly to infants.

In 1989, researcher Barry Richardson tested over 200 mattresses from babies who died of SIDS, and found S. brevicaulis in all of them. It is theorized that the reason why SIDS is more common in babies sleeping face down is their greater exposure to these gases, while boys and babies with infections are more vulnerable due to their higher body temperature. Thus, a mattress free from these flame retardants is an essential part of safe sleep practices for newborns and adults alike.

Don’t forget pillows either, as they can contain the same toxic chemicals as mattresses when made from synthetic foam. They are also closer to your face, so they may be more likely to cause respiratory irritation.

Exposure to formaldehyde resins over many nights can cause neurological symptoms such as disturbed sleep, apathy, dizziness, and poor concentration, undoing the benefits of a full night’s sleep. These results come from older occupational studies (long-term exposure), but newer research, which only studies short-term exposure, has only recorded minimal or no reaction. Formaldehyde reins can also cause eye and respiratory irritation and are more likely to affect us at higher concentrations.

Worst of all, formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer suggests there is “sufficient evidence” that formaldehyde contributes to nasopharyngeal cancer and some evidence that it may trigger leukemia.

How Can You Avoid Toxic Flame Retardants?

A low- or no-chemical mattress is much harder to find than, say, organic food or cosmetics. Even when they are labeled “natural” or even “organic,” there may still be toxins lurking inside.

Organic labels can be used as long as at least some materials are organic, so don’t go by this claim alone. The only way to know for sure that you’ve found a quality mattress is if it carries the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) or Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) label. Oeko-Tex Standard 100 prohibits allergenic dyes, colorants, and chemical flame retardants while limiting emissions of formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Greenguard (an industry-independent organization that works to protect human health and improve quality of life by enhancing indoor air quality and reducing people’s exposure to chemicals and other pollutants) and the Greenguard Gold Certification also set emission limits for these substances.

What To Look For in a Nontoxic Mattress

Avocado Green Mattresses was founded by a couple who know the struggle of finding a truly chemical-free mattress all too well. Instead of coming across options that were non-toxic, natural, organic, and affordable, Jeff and Alexandra D’Andrea found questionable claims by businesses pretending to sell such mattresses.

After assembling their team of designers, manufacturers, and other experts, the Avocado Green Mattress was born. The list of natural materials includes New Zealand wool, certified organic cotton, and sustainably-sourced latex. Their vegan mattress simply substitutes wool for organic cotton batting. No flame retardants, petroleum-based polyurethane, chemical adhesives, or other nasty substances! Instead of chemical adhesives, mattresses are button-tufted by hand to create a finished product that is both eco-friendly and a luxury item. They are certified by GOTS, Greenguard Gold, Oeko-Tex, and Eco-Institut. Avocado Green Mattresses also participates in 1 percent for the Planet, where at least 1 percent of revenue is donated to vetted environmental non-profits.

What People Are Saying About Avocado Green Mattresses

Many customers notice the difference made by using all-natural materials. One reviewer, who begins with a summary of “NICE!” states:

“Fewer sinus issues and coughing (I’m asthmatic), check. Best of all, it’s organic! No concerns over toxicity while we are sleeping!”

A second reviewer with multiple chemical sensitivity wrote, “There was just a slight odor but not a chemical odor, a natural latex odor, and I had no reaction to it.”

Sleeping Safe And Sound  

The flame retardants and VOCs lying in your conventional toxic mattress are a largely hidden contributing factor to chronic illness, but you do not have to put up with the symptoms they cause. There are options that fit a wide range of needs. If you are concerned about persistent toxic burden even after changing your mattress, it is best to see a holistic healthcare professional to determine what detoxification protocol is right for you.

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.


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