Memory foam mattresses and mattress toppers have become widespread in the past decade, as more and more consumers hear about how comfortable they are and how they practically mold to the shape of your body. Although many consumers are achieving sounder sleep, hidden chemicals might be posing a great risk to consumers. Memory foam mattresses are made by mixing various chemicals (often polyols diisocyanates) with blowing agents, which introduce carbon and thus create foam (polyurethane). Other common chemicals in memory foam mattresses include toluene, methyl benzene, acetone, formaldehyde, methylene dianiline, vinilideine chloride, methylene chloride, and dimethylformamide. These chemicals are typically carcinogenic, and several affect the liver, nervous system, memory, eyes, lungs, skin, and thyroid gland, in high enough quantities. Unfortunately, memory foam manufacturers are not required to disclose all of the components of their mattresses (trademark protected), nor are they required to divulge which chemicals they use to make their mattresses fire resistant. Most of the commonly used fire retardants are carcinogenic as well and some are known neurotoxins.
Out-gassing of chemicals occurs over time as the chemical components of the mattresses break down. Considering that adults spend roughly one-third of each day in the bedroom and children spend almost half of each day in their bedrooms makes the out-gassing of chemicals from mattresses an ever growing concern. It has been reported that only 2% of mattresses are returned due to the odor emitted from them. Oftentimes, the off-gassing of chemicals does not cause noticeable health issues. Currently, not enough data exists for conclusions to be drawn on the medical effects of out-gassing from mattresses. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are what provide the “new” smell to things (cars, homes, fresh paint, mattresses). However, these VOCs are also what pose a health risk from out-gassing mattresses.
Remember to be an informed consumer. Ask the company questions about their mattresses before purchasing a mattress. Since the United States and the European Union have banned many harmful chemicals from mattress manufacturing in the past decade, buying a mattress made in these regions likely will have less health risks. Ask what the memory foam is composed of and how the company creates the foam. Newer techniques using variable pressure eliminate the need for blowing agents (chemicals). Ask if the foam is natural latex, plant-based, or petroleum based; the petroleum based foams have the most off-gassing of chemicals. Ask how flame resistance was achieved for the mattress. Kevlar fabrics and rayon-treated silica are safer than other fire-retardant chemicals. Inquire about the density of the mattress, and keep in mind that the denser the mattress the stronger the off-gassing odor. Search for online reviews of the mattresses you are considering and check Consumer Product Safety Commission records.
If you purchase a memory foam mattress and smell a strong odor, remove the plastic and cover (if it comes with one) from the mattress. Place the mattress in a room or area with good ventilation and allow the mattress to air for a few days before placing the mattress into the bedroom. This will help reduce the off-gassing and reduce possible respiratory problems from the mattress. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States has reported that finished polyurethane foam is inert (non-toxic), reducing our chemical exposure promotes greater overall health.