The Shocking Truth About Foam Mattresses
A Guide to Going Organic in the Bedroom
As a species, we sleep 7-9 hours on average. That is 1/3 or our time spent in bed, on our mattresses! And even more hours in the day for our babies and parents of new babes and young children.
Me and my husband got married in September of 2016. A week after we got married we packed up our belongings, put them into storage, and headed to Hawaii for 5 weeks to work on a buddhist permaculture farm on the Big Island, Kohala Sanctuary. We are back on the mainland now, living in the wondrously scenic mid-columbian gorge and building our new life together. We recycled our old mattresses when we moved and have been on the hunt since for the perfect mattress.
I am a Naturopathic Doctor, as is my husband. I am informed (its a blessing and a curse) about the hidden dangers of harmless-seeming furniture, cleaning products, paint, etc., and deeply care about the health of our living space.
In my desperation to have a sleeping surface we initially bought a direct to consumer foam mattress that touted it did not use chemicals. It had been over 10 years since I had a new mattress and I was so excited when our mattress-in-a-box arrived. We unpacked it and immediately looked at each other knowing we had made a mistake. The smell of glue and polyurethane filled the house. They may not spray fire retardants as claimed, but I doubt it. After learning that the fire retardant laws are due to safety, and if its due to safety then they don’t have to disclose if they spray, and they didn’t have us get a doctors note for a non-sprayed mattress which is required of them by law if they didn’t spray it, I bet they spray. Back to the mattress, we opened the windows to air it out for days, had our HEPA filters going and were not sleeping on the mattress. After a week of airing out, the smell no longer filled the room but you could smell it when lying on to the mattress. At 3 weeks out - when we returned it - it still smelled when laying on the mattress. These foams will continue to break down and we will continue to be exposed for the life of the mattress, even if the smell goes away!
There's two sources of toxic exposure I want to go through here - the foam mattress and the fire retardants sprayed on the mattress.
Health effects of the foam mattress:
Digging into the health effects of foam mattresses was dizzying and left me feeling like I was lied to in a big way. Some of the highlights are ‘swell brain cells that bring about severe head pain’ so avoid if you get migraine headaches, causes asthma, you will experience worse lung effects for cold and flu, causes lung damage which can become permanent if exposed over a long period of time (usually the people in manufacturing exposed to large amounts over a long period of time), endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxins, and more!
Health effects of fire retardant chemicals:
- Negative effects on the reproductive system including altered hormone levels, reduced sperm concentrations.
- Lower IQ in children exposed
- Heart disease
- Hyperthyroidism in cats
See the resources section for article links on mattress’s and health.
You can find these chemicals in baby clothes, crib mattresses, nursing pillows, baby carriers, and sleeping wedges, with 80% of of children’s products testing positive for flame retardant chemicals. Breast milk from US moms has 2 times the amount of these chemicals than moms living in European countries. Getting an organic mattress is important if you are thinking about becoming pregnant, are pregnant, and for your babies to sleep on. Also if you have any lung or hormonal health conditions, consider investing in organic.
LifeHack - If you have a medical reason, you can get a doctors note for a chemical free mattress and it will be a tax write off at the end of the year.
Who’s Looking Out For Your Health?
The Fire Retardant law started in 1973 in response to cigarettes and lighters causing fires to flammable foam in mattresses and furniture. The law also included fire retardant on infant clothing.
So many times in my line of work I have to say to myself, “ How, in this age of information, can we be so ignorant?“ The government isn’t looking out for your best interest. It’s looking out for industry interest and upholding outdated laws. Fire retardants in mattresses is not exempt from that. How can we be spraying pounds of toxic chemicals on our furniture when #1 it doesn’t make a difference in escape time from a house fire with an open flame and causes more toxic smoke and smoldering, #2 it causes serious health effects, #3 it costs more to spray the mattresses, carpets, furniture, clothes, etc with the chemical soup than if they didn’t spray it! So the only interest group that benefits from this situation is the chemical industry.
What Should We Sleep On?
Me and my husband slept for 8 hours, breathing this concoction of chemicals, for a few nights before we pulled the trigger to find a better way. I woke up with the worst headache every morning! So back the mattress-in-a-box goes.
I was back to the drawing board. The thing that had stopped me from buying an organic mattress, made from 100% natural latex, organic wool and organic cotton, in the first place was the cost. It is yet again a situation where a natural product is more expensive than the chemical laden, synthetic, non-sustainable product. So vexing! I hope this shifts soon.
There is a lot of ‘greenwashing’ in the mattress industry. This means that there are claims that don’t, in the end mean anything because they aren't regulated terms and companies are abusing them. After this process, the only labels I trust are organic and 100% natural latex. Some manufacturers may use organic practices and not label it that way, which would be fine if you are able to speak with the company and find out what they are using. Also, as I said earlier, manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to make their products comply with safety regulations, such as fire safety regulations.
Unfortunately many chemical filled mattresses still end up on organic and non-toxic mattress lists. We found the foam mattress we bought on a few of these lists.
The best materials for your sleeping system (mattress, pillows, sheets, comforter, blankets, mattress pad, mattress topper):
- 100% Natural Organic Latex
- Organic Wool
- Organic Cotton
There is a big difference between organic and non-organic cotton (take this into account with clothing and other furniture purchases). 4 pounds of cotton, the weight of a queen sheet set, has about 1 pound of pesticides and fertilizers. Cotton is one of the dirtiest farming crops out there, only taking up 3% of the worlds farmland but using 25% of the pesticides and fertilizers used worldwide.
Can transmit EMF’s
Non-organic wool treated contains pesticide SVOCs.
Organic wool is a great at moisture wicking and if the lanolin is left on it will be hypoallergenic. Many companies strip the lanolin though because it has a smell to it. Without the lanolin the wool can harbor dust mites when it is at body temperature. It’s important to be able to wash your wool to get rid of the dust mites.
100% Natural Organic Latex:
This is the best material in my opinion. It’s antimicrobial and hypoallergenic. Call to make sure it’s actually 100% natural organic latex. It can be contaminated with other foams. Latex comes from a fruit tree, so if you can’t tolerate fruit or latex you’ll need to look for another option.
What I’m Sleeping On Now
100% natural latex mattress wrapped in organic cotton cover. I’ve slept on my new mattress one night now and it’s wonderful!
Yes we spent a little more money than the foam mattress, but not much. And when I consider the long term health impact of sleeping on chemicals and what health condition I, or my family, may develop, it is 100% worth it. Not to mention the latex will last 20 years, at which point it can be cut up and turned into pillows or composted!
From my own research and research and opinions of environmental medicine experts in my field, these are the places I would look to find a no chemical mattress (I have no financial affiliation with these companies):
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Do your own research, call companies, visit their facility and factory if you’re local!
Build your own mattress:
There are also some very cool people out there literally making their own bed. I hope to one be able to do this. Learn how to make your own bed here: