Mattress Safety Tips

Mattress Safety Concerns for Parents and Those That Are Chemically Sensitive

The Pros and Cons of Mattress Fire Safety and Flame Retardants


Parents face a seemingly endless sea of problems and worries when it comes to keeping their children healthy and safe. As a result, most moms and dads devote a good deal of time to learning about child-proofing a home: electric outlet covers, baby gates, lead-free paint, non-toxic crayons…the list goes on.

One issue that might not immediately occur is the question of mattress safety. Adults spend about eight hours a day sleeping; children of three years or younger may spend ten to eighteen hours of every day in bed, making the safety of their mattress a top priority. Since the 1970s, mattresses in the U.S. have faced increasingly rigorous anti-flammability standards. The most recent standard set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission – 16 CFR Part 1633, effective July 1, 2007 – laid down flammability limits for mattresses, mattress pads, and crib mattresses.

The prototype testing for mattresses and mattress pads includes a test for cigarette ignition resistance, where a minimum of eighteen cigarettes are used to test the material for flammability. Open flames and matches are also tested.

Mattresses that pass these tests are labeled with a prominent “T” and instructions on how to avoid reducing the fire-resistant properties of the mattress. This regulation was expected to prevent 270 deaths and prevent 1,330 fire-related injuries every year.  It should be noted that this law is there to protect cigarette smokers, as it will not squelch a house fire that was caused from a source other than a lit cigarette dropping on your mattress.

Unfortunately, fire is not the biggest hazard that parents need to worry about. The CPSC lists fifteen cases, from 1975 to 2010, of bedding recalls due to failure to meet safety standards. Nine of these were recalled due to flammability regulations—the most recent an IKEA recall in June 2010—but the main issue with crib mattresses was improper sizing. A mattress that is too small for the crib, or too soft, can be pushed out of place, creating a risk that the baby may become trapped between the mattress and the crib frame. Ideally, no more than two fingers should fit between the mattress and the crib frame.

Mattresses that are too soft also pose a hazard for suffocation. Incidences of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, are shown to be significantly reduced by placing babies to sleep on their backs or sides on a firm, well-fitted mattress.

Concerns about the role of toxic chemicals in SIDS cases have also been raised. The extensive fireproofing required of today’s mattresses introduces a substantial amount of chemicals into the mattress material. According to an article in Science, the dilemma of hazardous flame retardants is not a new one. Brominated tris and chlorinated tris were outlawed in children’s sleepwear after they were recognized as mutagens in the 1970s. Despite this, chlorinated tris is still used in foam padding for furniture; a 2009 study found pillows and seat cushions to be significant vectors for PBDEs (Imm, Knobeloch, Buelow, Anderson: 2009). PentaBDE, formerly used in polyurethane foam as a fire retardant, was banned in California in 2003, followed by eight other states and the European Union. In 2004 the manufacturer ceased production, but this may not have been much of a step forward for health.

Various chemical mixtures are now employed as fire retardants in foam and bedding, an issue over which the EPA has raised concerns. Flame retardant chemicals found in breast milk continue to raise serious questions about the stability and safety of anti-flammability treatments for clothing and furniture. As a result of this awareness, deca-BDE flame retardants in electronics and plastics are scheduled to be phased out by 2013 (Brown, Cordner). With such a wealth of conflicting advice and dire health risks, chemical sensitive individuals and parents may feel at a loss for how to keep their children safe from fires and toxic chemicals.

Practical Solutions for Avoiding Toxic Chemicals from Flame Retardants:

The good news is that if you are chemical-sensitive, concerned about your child, or just don’t like coming into contact with any extra toxins and carcinogens, there are practical solutions to avoiding them altogether.  For chemically sensitive individuals, a doctor’s prescription can allow a mattress manufacturer to make a custom mattress that will not contain any fire protection.  Since that is a more costly route, a more commonly cited solution is use of naturally inherent fire resistant materials. For quilted spring and other fiber filled mattresses, the fill itself will likely contain boric acid, antimony, DBDOP (decabromodiphenyl oxide), all known toxins.

Fortunately, sheep’s wool can be used, if enough fibers are there to offer the inherent fire protection that the natural substance offers.  Sheep’s wool will not cause respiratory issues as smaller, artificial fibers can.  It is also mold-resistant, and does not harbor dust mites. However, wool is an inflexible material, so comfort is sacrificed with use of this type of fiber, and it does inhibit the ability of the bed to contour with the body.  This may not be an issue in some of the more traditional extra firm spring mattresses that were using a lighter, less conforming foam on the surface or only a denser fiber filled top.

Memory foam mattresses are also a good choice for allergy and back pain sufferers, since dense memory foam offers natural resistance to dust mites and bed bugs, but inferior memory foam from overseas can have toxins that are concerns in themselves.  Additionally, memory foam is not an inherent fire resistant material, so the most common solution is a protective sock.

One clear advantage of the sock material over the fiber fill is that the sock material is produced as a netting that will not allow particulates like fiber fill to be inhaled.  This sock material usually comes in a stretchable form that uses a fiberglass and nylon composition. However, they can also contain antimony,  chlorine, bromine and lead, all known to be toxic and potentially carcinogenic substances.  The good news is that they do not have to contain these materials, and those companies willing to spend more can get an ecologically friendly fire sock that eliminates the need for these ingredients.  Since many of the fire socks are very stretchable, they offer both the ability to keep the contouring memory foam feel, as well as preventing the addition of the potentially dangerous fiber fill used in non-stretchable quilted covers.

Unfortunately, there is no government regulation preventing use of these dangerous flame retardant materials within a deemed reasonable level, so the burden falls on the consumers to inquire with the manufacturer as to what type of material is being used in their mattresses.

What About The Adhesives Used To Bond Mattress Layers?

When a mattress is produced with more than one layer, the effect can be dramatic in feel and support.  One or more softer layers can overly one or more firmer layers to give a comfortable feel with proper support underneath.  However, these layers will require bonding, and unfortunately some adhesives are made with noxious chemicals like ammonia or other hazardous air pollutants. Some can even contain the dangerous carcinogen formaldehyde.

Fortunately, there are completely water-based and solvent-free adhesives that are even GreenGuard certified both for indoor air quality and for children and schools.  These environmentally friendly adhesives are used by some mattress manufacturers, but as with the flame retardant materials, the burden does fall on the consumer to inquire with the manufacturer as to what type of adhesives are being used.

In summary, there are now ways of fire protecting mattresses with non-toxic materials and using higher standard products that can allay concerns for parents and chemical-sensitive individuals, as well as those who just want to avoid unnecessary contact with noxious and potentially cancer causing materials. Also, consumer demand for these better and safer products will put a demand on the manufacturers to provide more environmentally friendly solutions that will be more ecologically sustainable over the long haul.

Clearly, the constantly changing landscape of scientific research and safety recalls make it ever more difficult for the average consumer to decide how to keep themselves and their families safe. However, by staying informed, maintaining a healthy air of skepticism, and researching products that will come into contact with children, parents can minimize the risks their families face, and everyone can rest a little easier.