If you’ve been wondering why you can’t sleep well or feel bad in the morning for no reason, the trouble might not be with your sleep. It might be what you’re sleeping on.
The advertising for most mattresses makes you think of comfortable sleep, softness, and relaxation. But a cocktail of chemicals lurks deep within the mattress you sleep on, and it can increase your risk for cancer. Keep reading and take these steps to protect yourself…
Your firm, comfortable mattress contains more than memory foam or coils…there’s antimony, which is a heavy metal similar to arsenic. You’ll also find boric acid, a potent roach killer. To those two you can add toxins like the known carcinogen silicon, along with melamine, formaldehyde, decabromodiphenyl oxide, and ammonium polyphosphate.
Sadly, memory foam appears to be the worst offender. According to some of our sources, it has more toxins than mattresses made from other materials. And there’s a good chance you absorb these chemicals into your body every night.
So-called safety standards are anything but…
Most of the problem comes from state and federal flammability standards that require all mattresses to stand up to a severe open-flame test of 2,000 degrees for 70 seconds.
This means acutely toxic chemicals, many of which are known to cause cancer, are in or next to the surface of all mattresses. Most mattresses made after 2007, when the latest legislation was passed, are loaded with high doses of flame-retardant chemicals.
Mattress manufacturers are just doing what the law makes them do. Yet they’re sly about the way they do it.
When you buy a new mattress, you’ll never see a “Contents” list. It might say “Made in China” or “All New Materials.” But that’s about all you get. Believe it or not, this is legal. No labeling requirements exist for these chemicals, though many major mattress manufacturers have admitted to media outlets that these chemicals are in their mattresses.
When I looked into it, I read several reports that said things like “the mattress industry has determined that the chemicals used to create a flame retardant product are completely safe.” Well now. If that’s the case, why not disclose that list of chemicals to the public?
The Consumer Products Safety Commission boasts that flame-retardant chemicals in mattresses could save as many as 200 lives a year in bedding fires. I’m not impressed. In a nation of about 350 million people, that’s a tiny benefit, compared to the danger posed to all of us by the toxins.
They should analyze the risk of potentially poisoning millions since those flame-proofing chemicals leach to the surface of our mattresses every night. That means we absorb them every night.
From your mattress into your body
Reports show you likely absorb .8 mg of deadly antimony and .08 mg of toxic boric acid every day. An accumulation of antimony in the body is known to be acutely cancer-causing.
That means you’re carrying around a lot of toxins in your body just so you can avoid the risk of a mattress fire (that risk is about one in 1.111 million).
Caroline, a blogger from Minnesota, says her mattress sent her brain into a “toxic mess” for several weeks. Blurred vision, nausea, headache, and poor sleep quality are the most common symptoms people report.
But depending on your level of chemical sensitivity, you may not experience these effects until a few weeks — or even a few years — after you begin sleeping on a chemical-filled bed.
Symptoms can also include lack of energy, dizziness, muscle aches, and confusion. The worst reports link mattress chemicals to asthma, skin issues, fertility problems, hair loss, neurological concerns, and cancer.
Workers in some mattress factories are complaining of early signs of illness. That should be a warning to the rest of us. But consider it took nearly two generations of asbestos-related illnesses and deaths before anything was done.
The greater problem though is that if someone experiences these symptoms, or even if they’ve had them for years … they probably don’t think of blaming their mattress.
How to reduce your risk of chemical absorption
At least there are a few things you can do about the problem. Start by smelling your mattress. If it still has a “new” smell, chances are tons of chemicals are leaching into the air and into your body. It’s called off-gassing (sometimes “out-gassing”). There are a couple ways to lower your risk of absorbing these toxins:
- Get a low-density, food-grade polyethylene cover. It’s a safe plastic with waterproofing ability. Unlike vinyl, low-density polyethylene doesn’t release dioxins and other toxic chemicals (at least that’s what our sources indicate.) Some people report success from wrapping their beds in sheets of polyethylene found at home improvement stores, but it makes for a noisy mattress, and you have to be careful to get the right thickness — at least five millimeters of clear, pure polyethylene. Sleeping on plastic isn’t the most comfortable or breathable experience, so an organic cotton mattress pad on top is essential.
- Don’t assume a dust mite barrier blocks toxins. Though they protect you from dust mites and other allergens, they’re not enough to protect you from toxic chemicals and gases. Because toxic gases are heavier than air, they can only rise about an inch or two above the mattress. Consider buying a three-inch organic topper for your bed that boosts you above the surface of the original mattress.
- Vacuum often, and make sure you use a HEPA filter. Also, use a wet mop to reduce dust, which may be a hotbed of toxins that migrated from your bed.
- Wash your hands frequently. Hand-to-mouth contact is one of the biggest sources for exposure to flame retardants.
When you replace your mattress
If you want to replace your current mattress, I don’t advocate buying from a standard bedding store. But if you do, good ventilation is essential for off-gassing a new mattress. Some people report leaving new mattresses in the garage for up to two weeks to get rid of the smell. This certainly helps with the smell, but it won’t completely rid your mattress of toxins. Others jump on the bed to push toxins up and out of the mattress— but where do those toxins go? Up into the air you breathe? This one has me scratching my head. I don’t see that it can do much good.
If the only concern is off-gassing, a mattress that’s several months or years old is better than any new one you can buy. A used mattress or one from a second-hand store will release fewer gases. Any mattress made before 2007 is better in this regard. But again, this “solution” leaves me wondering, because a used mattress can be filthy. Perhaps a used mattress from a friend or relative with VERY good hygiene is worth considering.
Another option is to look for brands certified by Greenguard Environmental Institute, an organization independent of the industry that tests for emissions. Certification is now accepted by sustainable building programs world-wide and means that the product has been scientifically proven to have low chemical emissions.
Perhaps your best option is a natural or organic hand-made mattress. But I have to introduce another note of caution here: Natural latex mattresses are often sold as allergen-free, but many people have a bad reaction to latex. I found out I was one of them, and my very expensive, all-natural latex mattress is now in the guest bedroom. I was unable to sleep on it.
Here are some other tips:
- Shop with the eye of a skeptic. Some new mattresses marketed as natural aren’t the real deal. Manufacturers make this claim because they replace up to 15 percent of the petroleum base with soy or cedar oil. But that still leaves you with petroleum as a major component in the mattress.
- Consider an organic mattress with wool fiber. These are natural and fire-safe because of the natural fire-retardant properties in wool. Just make sure to look for something with pure wool; some companies use chemically-treated wool to boost fire resistance.
- Be wary about buying any “organic” mattress. Organic doesn’t mean non-toxic in the world of bedding. The organic component may be cotton filling or surface padding. But if there’s a vinyl covering present, there’s a good chance chemical fire retardants are there.
- Buy locally when possible. A local craftsman may be able to create a toxin-free mattress for you. Amish craftsmen are particularly good at this, I’ve heard. If you live in Amish country this may be an idea worth exploring.
A brand just for cancer patients
You can also purchase a natural memory foam mattress from Essentia, a company that was founded after a family member was diagnosed with cancer. Those beds are biodegradable and said to last 25 years.
Essentia makes its mattresses in Canada, so they aren’t subject to the same flame retardant laws as in the U.S. The company states, “… We only use mattress components that are either certified organic or confirmed VOC free. We use a Kevlar fabric which is one of the very few VOC-free fire retardants on the market.”
And if you dislike the idea of any flame retardant at all, including their nontoxic option, you can send them a doctor’s note to get a mattress without the Kevlar fabric.
Before you shop, it may be worth a try to contact the manufacturer of your current mattress and insist on a full list of materials. Some will give it to you, some won’t.
What to do if you have to sleep on a
But that begs the question … what about other mattresses? What about going on vacation and sleeping on a hotel mattress? Or even staying at a friend’s house?
The only solution I can give you is to do a regular detox. Use an infrared sauna. Take a hot Epsom salt bath, or a clay bath, and sweat as much as you can.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get off the grid in terms of toxins in today’s modern world. We all have them in our bodies. We all have them in our homes and in our workplaces, our schools and even in mother nature.
In fact, researchers have found traces of man-made toxins in polar bears up near the North Pole. So, the best you can do is to lessen your risk, especially since you spend so much of your life sleeping. But after you’ve done what you can, let go of the worry that comes from knowing about these toxins. Worrying can be toxic, too.
- “Avoiding toxic chemicals in your couch, mattress.”
- “Forget Monsters Under the Bed, What About the Monsters Hiding in Your Mattress?” By Sloan Barnett. Huffington Post.
- “How To Buy A Non-Toxic Mattress (And An Inexpensive Alternative).” By Heather Dessinger.
- “Is Your Mattress Toxic?” Guest post by Caroline of the Gutsy blog, courtesy of Kelly the Kitchen Kop.
- “New Federal Mattress Standard, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 20 June, 2007, Release #07-220.
- Toxic Bedrooms. By Walter Brader. Freedom Press.