Dear Gassed Off,
Until recently, crib mattresses have been described in pretty basic terms: foam vs. coil. Safety issues have focused on a tight fit in the crib and a firm surface. But an increase in environmental awareness has raised some new concerns about mattress construction and chemicals. Standard synthetic mattresses are often filled with flammable polyurethane foam, treated with fire-retardant chemicals (PBDEs) and/or covered with a polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Studies have shown that these chemicals can leach into the environment and have been linked with health problems. You may have read the recent news story about toxic chemicals found in children’s bodies; mattresses are one of many possible sources.
Europe has been eliminating PBDEs from consumer products for several years due to health concerns. And efforts are being made in the US to cut down on their use. The main glitch is that the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission requires by law that all mattresses be flameproof. This means the vast majority of mattresses available in the states are treated with these chemicals.
However, naturally fireproof mattresses are becoming increasingly available. Natural materials like latex, cotton and wool are less flammable to begin with, so they can more easily meet CSPC standards without toxic chemical treatments. They may use non-toxic fireproofing treatments. As many of the eco baby websites will tell you, organic materials provide other benefits, such as keeping dust mites at bay (which can be good for allergies). Another way to bypass the CPSC regulation is to get a prescription from a doctor stating that your child is chemically-sensitive.
The SIDS issue you refer to probably comes from a controversial 1994 New Zealand study showing that flame-retardants leach a toxic gas when combined with a natural fungus that grows on mattresses over time, and that inhaling these gases causes SIDS. But there has been research disproving this theory and it is not widely accepted.
We don’t really know that much about how sleeping on conventional mattresses might affect us. The precise amount of chemical leaching from beds is mostly estimated, and there is as yet no evidence of any negative health impact. Reducing routine use of these chemicals is certainly good for the planet. Here’s what the National Resource Defense Council (whom we’ve come to trust) has concluded:
“Crib mattresses made from natural materials offer a healthy and safer start for your baby. Many conventional mattresses today use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as the mattress cover and polyurethane foam treated with flame retardants as the filling material. These materials have been shown to release harmful chemicals such as pthalates, which interfere with testosterone and can cause abnormalities in male reproductive development.”
There are some advantages to a traditional mattress, too: they’re easy to come by, they are often easy to clean and waterproof. (If you’re going green there are organic water-resistant options, both in a mattress and in a mattress cover.) Organic mattresses can be more expensive than synthetic ones, but there are now some pretty affordable options out there.
It’s really up to you how seriously you want to take this information. We’d like to think that if this were a really important issue, we’d be hearing more about it than the occasional piece of environmental news. But we’re not sure we believe that. We’d also like to avoid going crazy in search of total purification. The good news is that there since there are affordable organic alternatives, the decision to go green can be a little easier to make. While researching this column, we both ordered natural mattresses.
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