Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to get a non-toxic night’s sleep.
Think you already are?
If you haven’t made it a specific goal, you probably are sleeping in a cloud of off-gassing VOCs and flame-retardant-laden dust from inside your mattress. It’s not a pretty picture, and I’m sorry to be the one to paint it for you, but ignorance is not bliss in this circumstance (and so many, sigh…).
There’s a lot about sleep that needed improving at the Kitchen Stewardship house (starting with number of hours in bed, to be honest!), and we’re going to cover quite a few of them in the next few weeks.
Introducing the “How to Get Healthy Sleep: Toxin-Free and Restorative” Series
- Have a Non-Toxic Night’s Sleep (today)
- Healthy Sleep for Babies and Children (don’t worry, no advice from the babies-don’t-sleep-worth-beans family on how to actually GET babies to sleep, just safe surfaces for them and their messes)
- The Secret to Restorative Sleep: restfulness and REM, tips to get deeper sleep, etc.
- Review of our new non-toxic mattress
- a massive list of non-toxic mattress resources that I’ve been compiling over 3+ years
Why are Toxic Chemicals Interfering with my Sleep Anyway?
It’s all about the mattress.
We in the natural living crowd talk a lot about non-toxic cleaners, organic food, and safe materials for food storage, but when it comes down to total impact time, the sleep environment has to be the highest. If we’re getting enough sleep, we spend about one-third of our lives in bed (and if we’re not, that’s another issue, one that we’ll cover next week).
That’s a significant number of hours!
And just like the now-famous BPA, a hormone-disrupting, cancer-causing chemical, can leach out of your plastics and into your food and drink, chemicals in your mattress can off-gas right into your face, all night long and get mixed in with the dust you breathe (which, believe it or not, is even worse).
There are two major areas of concern when it comes to safe, non-toxic mattresses.
A house fire won’t kill you…but the mattress just might.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, an arm of the federal government (in the U.S.) set a firm standard in 2006 that all mattress sets need to pass certain flammability tests in open-flame scenarios. They estimated that the move would prevent “240 to 270 deaths and 1,150 to 1,330 injuries” each year.
The requirements have little to do with smoking and cigarettes, despite what you’ve heard on other blogs. “Protection from cigarette ignition has been in place for more than 30 years.” (source) The regulation is designed to limit “flashovers,” when an entire room goes up in flames instantly.
To pass the test, mattresses have to emit only a small amount of heat when exposed to an open flame, literally two gas burners underneath it, with one level for the first ten minutes and slightly higher for the next twenty. The idea is to give people in the room more of a chance to escape the room before it’s engulfed in flames.
That all sounds like a great idea.
The government never regulated what companies should do to meet their standards, which means mattress makers will generally choose the cheapest route to passing.
There’s controversy, of course, about whether the chemical flame retardants used in most mattresses are safe or not. To save us all from digging into each and every chemical used and the research on it, let’s look at whether we want to trust the government and industries telling us “it’s all good:”
- Here’s a report on how badly the data has been skewed and how poorly designed the research studies were when much of the information on safe vs. hazardous flame retardant chemicals was collected.
- Over the few decades in which flame retardants have been used in furniture (and children’s pajamas) to varying degrees, quite a number of them have been pulled off the market or banned, either by manufacturers in response to consumer pressure or by the EPA after realizing that the substance wasn’t as safe as it once thought (or by the EU or even individual states).
- “New and improved” versions of the flame retardants were said to not break down and enter the environment pervasively. However, scientists are finding those chemicals in dust in the air all over the country. They are unsure about whether it is persistent in the human body yet.
- Chemicals that were pulled from children’s pajamas decades ago (chlorinated tris, extremely carcinogenic) are still found in furniture and even crib mattresses.
- Most flame retardant chemicals are of a similar structure and function as the now-banned PBDE (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers), which don’t off-gas – rather as the material the chemical is laced into breaks down, the chemical itself is released and sticks to household dust, which we then inhale and consume (particularly young children who spend a lot of time on the carpet and put things into their mouths).
- The EPA does its testing after a substance is already in mass production and use. They have to prove that it poses an “unreasonable risk,” a term so tightly defined that even asbestos doesn’t fit the bill.
- Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4
I don’t know for sure who has better data, the whistleblowers who say that the current flame retardant chemicals are harmful or the companies who use them saying they’re safe, along with the government, but I just can’t rightfully get behind the “powers that be” when they’re pulling stuff like that bulleted list above.
I can’t stand the old “innocent until proven guilty” line when it comes to chemicals coming into my home, nor do I appreciate the government standard saying, “You must meet this unnatural level of resisting flames for the materials commonly used, yet we’re not going to tell you what methods are acceptable or not for our people.”
Surely you noticed that the total deaths and injuries per year were under 2,000 people.
So to save a potential 2,000 people, millions upon millions are put at risk, or at best into the unknown, including the most vulnerable among us – infants and children who spend the most time in their beds and on other foam-filled surfaces like carseats.
I’m not trying to be insensitive, and I’m sure if I lost a loved one to a bedroom fire because of a flashover, I might sing a different tune (although personally, probably not), but that’s really not that many people saved by a standard that may ultimately cause harm to far, far many more people.
The most common flame retardants used incorporate chlorine or bromine into organic molecules, taking the place of oxygen and reducing combustion. This set-up isn’t found in the natural world, and as usual when man interferes, problems arise:
- bioaccumulation (non-natural substances piling up, so to speak, in the natural world – rivers, ground water, human bodies, etc.)
- reduced fertility
- decreased IQ
- birth defects
- thyroid disruption
- Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4
Over and over again, each permutation of “new” flame retardants is introduced, used widely, tested by the EPA, and finally the same results, every single time so far: hazardous to our health. So the industry starts the cycle over.
I’m not optimistic enough about the latest round to invite these things into my house willingly (even though they’re already there in droves, because yes, we do have furniture. I’ll do what I can moving forward…).
Besides the question of safety of the chemicals themselves, there are two other layers that make the whole issue even thornier:
2. Are the pollutants released by the smoke created when these pieces of treated furniture burn actually more dangerous than anything. (quite possibly)
When the basis for the entire standard is called into question, now we’re getting truly ridiculous.
We have a problem that affects less than 2,000 Americans per year in the entire country, a solution that probably doesn’t even work to fix the problem, which also, under the circumstances in which it’s designed to save people likely creates massive toxic pollutants, and millions of people are forced to be exposed to the faulty solution’s chemicals, causing chronic and irreversible damage.
Welcome to your bed, dear readers.
Is Your Old Mattress Safer or Worse?!?
I get a little bit foggy on the timeline of mattresses and flame retardants.
Sometimes I read people say that because the current flame resistant standards went into effect in 2007, if you have a mattress older than that, chances are good that you don’t have toxic flame retardants in it.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, because when you start reading about the various flame retardant chemicals used over the years, a lot of them date back to the early 2000s and prior.
- Fire resistant standards were in place since the 1970s to decrease the number of smokers dying in bed, so mattresses have generally had chemicals applied to them for quite a few decades. Some of them prior to 2004, like PBDE, were much more toxic than the ones used now (at least, that we know of).
- California passes an awful lot of laws, standards, and rules. The easiest way for companies to be able to sell their products in Cali is to make all their stuff the same way. Go ahead – go check your changing table pad. Your nursing pillow. Your couch. You know that tag that “cannot be removed under penalty of law?” Find that one. If the item in question contains polyurethane foam and has a label saying it meets California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), then it very likely is treated with flame retardant. We really can’t get away from the stuff. Darn California.
So I wish I could say things like, “Don’t worry, just buy an older mattress, made before 2007,” or “if you have an older mattress, it’s probably off-gassed already.” But that is just wishful thinking. The only way to know for sure that you’re not sleeping on a bed of toxins is to talk to the manufacturer of your mattress. Period.
(Want to see what the flame tests look like? I wish I could just copy this photo but that could get me in trouble, so you’ll have to go here to see a side-by-side of two mattresses, one with flame retardants and one without. Me? I wouldn’t really want to still be sleeping on either of them, would you? )
Foam is comfy…but not so safe
It seems like there’s always “something else” when it comes to health, doesn’t it?
With mattresses, you not only have to watch out for flame retardant chemicals added to the mattress, but the components of the mattress itself are likely potential problems as well.
All foam off-gasses (emitting Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs); memory foam has even more potentially toxic ingredients and off-gasses much longer. Adhesives and formaldehyde can be culprits alongside the foam itself.
Memory foam mattresses aren’t the only mattresses with foam – just about all of them have it, for cushioning, side support, pillow tops and more. Inexpensive polyurethane is the material du jour most often, and as a petroleum-based product, let’s just say it’s highly, highly flammable.
And suddenly we’re circling back to the flamer retardants. Again.
They can be laced right into the foam, too, which allows some manufacturers to claim, “No added chemicals,” since they didn’t add the toxins themselves. Ridiculous. If you want a safe mattress, you pretty much need to have a live conversation with the manufacturer and ask about every. single. component. of the product and how it was sourced and every component of every component, from what is on the springs to prevent rust (and fire) and what is in the foam as far as what it’s made of (and to prevent fire).
An “I don’t know” is a no-no.
The Workaround: No Doctor Visit Required
The only way to get a mattress that doesn’t pass the flame test is via a doctor’s prescription, but that’s not the only way to avoid the chemicals.
Remember that the government doesn’t actually mandate that all mattresses be sprayed/infused with flame retardants, just that it passes a test.
Luckily for us, there are other ways for materials to pass the open flame test, starting with using different materials.
Here are some options for you to avoid the mess of toxins that some mattresses can be:
- Avoid polyurethane foam. Foam is sometimes called “solid fuel” because it is soooo highly flammable. So if your mattress contains foam, it will need a higher level of flame retardant to compensate. (Pay attention as well to foam pillows, changing table pads, nursing pillows, highchairs and other furniture). The crib mattress Gabe is sleeping on above is organic cotton from Naturepedic – no foam, no flame retardant chemicals. You can find beds with foam that don’t have toxic chemical flame retardants, but if you have no foam you’re less likely out of the gate to be dealing with toxicity. We’ll hit non-toxic sleep for babies and kids more tomorrow.
- Get an organic mattress that uses wool as the fire blocker. Wool smothers the flames enough to pass the test, usually without anything else added (but especially if the mattress isn’t certified organic, you should still ask what’s in it).
- Silica is another fire blocker that’s not entirely natural, but effective and non-toxic. Described as “like glass” or sand, silica may actually extinguish the flame in the test. Some worry that it may be a respiratory hazard, but that’s not all that founded of a concern, especially since most homes are made of fiberglass insulation, a much greater risk of breathing in silica particles.
- Boric acid is one last flame retardant that is used that isn’t quite as toxic. It’s controversial, because some are saying that “it’s roach poison” and you don’t want to be breathing it in either, but the research-based toxicity isn’t nearly as well-documented on that one. I’d rather avoid it altogether if possible, but it’s definitely a lesser evil if it’s something you have already anyway.
We’ll unpack more facts on a non-toxic sleep surface and more about healthy sleep in the rest of my sleep series.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links from which I will earn a commission. See my full disclosure statement here.