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Can Mattresses Be Toxic?

By Kristie Turck •  Published 08/13/22 •  7 min read

Last updated on August 20th, 2022 at 09:15 am


Most mattresses are toxic because the materials they are made of offgas. The term “off-gassing” has become a hot-button topic when it comes to considering clean air in our homes and environment.  Off-gassing is the release of gas dissolved, absorbed, frozen or trapped in a material.  It usually refers to noxious or harmful chemicals and is particularly worrisome when it occurs in a closed environment with stagnant air.

People Spend More Time On Toxic Mattresses Than Other Furniture.

The bed mattress is one of the most common household items that give cause for consideration to many concerned parents and adults.

Infant and children’s mattresses are particularly important because of the length of time and extended periods that little ones spend sleeping.

When I was pregnant with our first child, I hadn’t delved deep into an eco-conscious lifestyle or avidly perused every known article on toxic chemicals and children’s exposure.  I couldn’t reason the need for an expensive mattress or a certain thickness when it wasn’t possible to poll the one who would be sleeping on it and ask her preference.  So, the crib mattress we purchased was the “blue light special” on Aisle 8.

But, then Beckett was born, and our lives changed forever.  This life, this shining light, was ours to raise, protect and nurture; and every decision – no matter how minute – was analyzed, including her exposure to potentially harmful substances and chemicals.  Our family embarked on a life-altering journey in January 2010 and began to make our lives and our home “greener”.  I began feverishly looking for a replacement mattress.  But, the price tags of all-natural and organic mattresses made me shudder.  As luck would have it – I snagged a name-brand organic crib mattress on Craigslist for less than half of the normal retail price and it was brand new!

Why is off-gassing in mattresses a concern?

There are two portions of a mattress that can be off-gas.  The first component is the foam and synthetic materials the mattress contains.  These include polyurethane foam, icynene foam and biobase foam.  The make-up of polyurethane foam is the primary foundation in almost all mattresses because of its unique quality to remain bouncy almost indefinitely.  The polyurethane foam off-gasses “isocyanate” – a key agitator in making polyurethane that creates the foam bubbles.  Studies have shown that exposure to isocyanate results in headaches and other irritations but does not have a proven health risk.

The second component is the chemicals used to glue, stain, and coat the mattress.  Mattresses manufactured in the United States are required to be fire-retardant and the industry standard for complying with these regulations is a mixture of known carcinogenic chemicals.  These chemicals include boric acid (used in rat poison and roach killer) and antimony trioxide.  Carcinogenic chemicals by definition are known cancer-causing agents.

The final component is an indirect result of the fire-retardants and the polyurethane make up of the mattress.  The chemicals used in both processes are magnets for fungus and bacteria.  These organisms can off-gas some of the most toxic byproducts as they consume these very materials and chemicals.

Mattress Off-Gassing vs New Mattress Smell

One of the assumptions people often make about off-gassing is that the “new product smell” indicates whether a mattress needs to be or has been properly off-gassed.  I contacted and perused the websites of five major mattress manufacturers and only one of them acknowledged “a new product smell”.  Taking the chemical make-up and potential exposure to toxic substances out of the equation, it would be foolhardy to say that new mattresses do not have a smell.  What that smell is and what you do about it are two different questions and at the bare minimum, the companies should address the idea of “airing” the mattress.

TEMPUR-Pedic, one of the leading memory foam mattress companies addresses the “new product smell” with the following explanation.  I certainly wouldn’t call it reassuring.

“Some people notice a slight odor to their new mattress – this can come from our TEMPUR material manufacturing process.  This smell is normal and usually disappears before the product reaches you.  Sometimes, however, this smell may still be noticeable.  It usually disappears after a few weeks.”

What can you do to avoid off-gassing exposure?

There are three different ways to limit your and your child’s exposure to off-gassing chemicals.  Each one fits into a different budget and works within your personal level of concern and vigilance towards your exposure.

  1. The first is to purchase an organic mattress that utilizes natural materials, including wool, to meet the fire retardant regulations set forth in the U.S.  The waterproof barrier used in these mattresses is a food-grade polyethylene that provides more than adequate protection against accidents and leaks.  The number one choice for organic and natural mattresses out there is Naturepedic.  With materials that are safe and non-toxic and a price point of between $250 and $400, the mattresses are relatively affordable.
  2. The second option is to purchase a standard mattress with polyurethane foam and traditional chemical-based fire retardants.  If you choose this option, your best choice is to allow your mattress to off-gas before you sleep on it.  How long you choose to off-gas the mattress is up to you.  It is impossible to know when the exposure level to the toxins is safe and/or has tapered off because each individual mattress has a different make-up of materials and chemical treatments.
  3. A third option and the most price-conscious is to wrap your standard mattress.  You can purchase a barrier that envelopes your mattress completely and blocks, to a certain extent, the chemicals being released during off-gassing.  One of the most reputable companies for a mattress cover is BabeSafe.

Can Mattress Off-Gassing Make You Sick?

Off-gassing in mattresses is a very real concern. Especially to parents with little ones and those who are expecting.  It is a gray subject matter, to say the least, because every person is different and every mattress is different.  There is no clear evidence or concrete data on the health hazards towards humans to certain brands of mattresses.  Tests conducted in Europe have shown serious animal health effects. Europe has chosen to phase out traditional fire retardants completely.  The single indisputable fact is that carcinogenic substances are being put onto and into standard mattresses as fire retardants.  If and how you choose to protect yourself against this exposure is up to you.

Are Organic Mattresses Worth The Price?

Here’s the thing – I know I’m not alone when it comes to considering mattress safety and our children.  And, I know that I am not the only one that lives on a budget and spends dollars wisely.  So, where’s the middle ground between affordability and safety?  Is there really a need to consider and spend bigger bucks on all-natural and organic when it comes to mattresses?  Is it possible to buy cheaper and off-gas the noxious chemicals?  These are questions I’m considering and hope to answer here for you.

Further Reading

Crib Recalls What To Do

Naturepedic Organic Mattress Review

Best Solid Wood Cribs


Please welcome our new Guest Writer Katy Ferry! Kate Ferry is a freelance writer living in Custer, Washington.  In 2010, her family made the choice to support a more eco-conscious lifestyle by supporting local, buying organic, reducing their waste and eliminating their exposure to toxic chemicals in the home.  When she is not at her full-time job number crunching for a local school district, she can be found tending to her beehives, knee-deep in the garden, wrangling in her two-year-old daughter or relishing in the joys of pregnancy with the expectant arrival of her second child in October.  You can find more of her work and information on her family’s project on her website, www.SacredBee.net.

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