Most people know about the benefits of organic foods and household products; but organic mattresses and organic bedding, not so much. Sleeping on an organic mattress is starting to be recognized as just as important for your overall health. As with furniture and carpets, non-organic mattresses are treated with chemical flame-retardants, which have been tied to cancer, obesity, infertility, and developmental brain disorders.
The Chemical Danger of Traditional Mattresses
The off-gassing chemicals in mattresses, bedding, and sometimes pajamas, degrade into dust particles, which are ingested into the body through the skin and respiratory systems, and once inside, they accumulate. Children often carry the highest toxic load, as their bodies are in the generative stage, constantly making new cells.
The main flame-retardant chemical that manufacturers douse mattresses in is called polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE); this chemical has been banned in Europe, Canada, and several US states. Manufacturers in the US are not required to disclose the presence of this or any other chemical used to treated mattresses, or furniture. PBDE has been linked to low sperm counts, thyroid problems, brain and reproductive damage, and cancer. Besides PBDE, mattresses may be treated with fire retardant chemicals like boric acid, antimony, and decabromodiphenyl oxide.
Boric acid is primarily used as a pesticide, and in humans it causes reproductive and brain damage, along with respiratory irritation. Antimony is a possible carcinogen, which may cause heart and lung damage; decabromodiphenyl oxide causes hair and memory loss, and is also a potential carcinogen. For the privilege of inhaling all these toxins, people pay thousands of dollars—a cheap air mattress is no worse for your health in the long run.
The Problem with Coil Spring Mattresses In Particular
Besides the many chemicals a non-organic mattress is treated with, there is also the danger of heightened EMF exposure (electromagnetic frequencies). The coil spring in a mattress works like an antenna amplifying ambient FM radiation. Spending a third of your life sleeping on top of an intense wave of electromagnetic radiation has consequences, as a cancer study documented in Scientific American demonstrated.
The study discussed how rates of breast cancer and melanoma have increased steadily in western countries in the last thirty years, despite no change in the sun’s intensity. Melanoma typically affects the hip, thighs, and torso, which are usually protected from the sun by clothing; the study’s authors determined that sleeping habits are behind the increase. In Japan, there has been no comparable rise in melanoma or breast cancer, or in left side of the body cancers (which are also rising in Western countries); prostate cancer rates there are less than 10% of the rates in the US and UK. The standard bed in Japan is a futon on a bamboo mat on the floor—no metal parts involved. In western countries, people sleep directly above metal coils in their mattresses, and typically they sleep on their right side, to take weight off the heart; this places the left side of the body in a stronger electromagnetic field than the right side, and explains the raised cancer rates.
Another problem with coil spring mattresses is how inviting they are to dust mites, mold, and mildew—the damp, dark spring system is an ideal environment for all three. Spring mattresses double their weight after ten years: accumulated dead skin, dust mites, feces particles, and dust make up this added weight. In ten weeks, one dust mite can produce 2000 particles of fecal matter, which is a known allergen and affects both sleep quality and overall health.
An Organic Mattress is a Great Alternative
The best alternative to these dangers is to choose a natural and organic mattress. Natural latex mattresses, made often with the natural latex of rubber trees are a safe bet. The majority of organic mattresses offer a combination of latex, cotton, and wool, which acts as a natural flame retardant.
Look for the Real Deal When Shopping for an Organic Mattress.
Beware of product labels like “eco-friendly” and “natural”: unless it’s been certified organic by a third party (in which case, the mattress is labeled “organic”), there’s no guarantee the product is actually organic. False advertising is an unfortunate standard in modern commercialism; be aware. Another point to keep in mind when shopping for an organic mattress is that there’s really no 100% organic mattress—organic mattresses are made of a mixture of organic materials and other natural components. But at least 95% of the latex used must be made from certified organic components for the mattress to be certified organic.
In the organic imposters —companies that label their products “natural latex foam”, without organic certification— there’s usually little actual organic latex. It’s a very costly process, and the raw materials must be certified organic rubber. Typically, only the first inch of the total mattress in a natural latex mattress is actually made of certified organic latex. Memory foam, a latex product created by NASA to cushion astronauts through atmospheric re-entry, can be certified organic, but you’ll pay for it. These are the highest-end products on the market. Organic futon mattresses, made from alpaca fill fibers, sheep’s wool, and/or clean cotton, are a more affordable way to go.
How the Mattress Industry Got to Where It Is
Besides an organic mattress, organic bedding will also improve sleep quality and overall health. In previous decades, thirty years back, pillows, comforters, and sheets were made of untreated, natural materials. Today, most are manufactured outside of the United States and are treated with flame-retardants and lots of petrochemicals. As with mattresses and furniture, fiber bedding (and some clothing) was initially treated with flame-retardants to reduce the number of fires in bedrooms, which had the highest rates of household fires. (Much of this was due to people falling asleep while smoking or with candles burning). The flame-retardants are blended into the fabrics as the bedding is made. If you have unexplained headaches or joint aches and you’re using chemical soaked sheets, you might want to switch to organics.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) lists several chemicals as the main components used in fiber bedding, to meet current safety standards; these include formaldehyde, boric acid, vinylidiene chloride, zinc borate, melamine, antimony trioxide, and decabromodiphenyl oxide (DBDPO Deca).
Boric acid was mentioned earlier; besides being a known reproductive and developmental toxin, it also has been tied to high pre-natal mortality rates. Its main commercial use is to kill cockroaches—not really what you want to inhale night after night. If the label on your bedding or clothing reads, “treated cotton,” the product likely contains boric acid.
Formaldehyde is used in lots of products, most notably the preservation of lab specimens. It’s a carcinogen and irritates the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. Swallowing it may be fatal, but it’s part of most bedding sold in the US.
Antimony was also mentioned earlier, it closely resembles arsenic and may cause irregular heart rates, miscarriages, and liver damage (according to the CDC). The CDC has not been able to determine a safe level of antimony exposure, stating, “At the lowest exposure levels tested, the adversity of the effects was considered to be serious.” Its cancer effects are cumulative, and when you ingest the chemicals over a long period of time (like every night for years), the likelihood of developing increases. Deca (DBDPO) is a petrochemical that is showing up in breast milk; it accumulates and is linked to cancer. Finally, melamine resin, which is a component of commercial bedding and mattresses—it’s another form of formaldehyde.
It’s difficult to believe that the bedding, mattress, and garment industries include these chemicals in their products (and that the US government created the rules), but it’s a fact. Many doctors opposed the legislation, which happened in the late 1980s, and statistics bear out their fears. The CPSC has carried out migration studies showing that the added toxins leach out of bedding and mattresses, and are then absorbed though the skin. A CPSC assessment found that humans absorb .802 mg of antimony (the EPA published safe number is .0004 mg), .081 mg of boric acid, and .073 mg DBDPO every day from flameproof mattresses. This study, unfortunately, excluded children under five, by assuming they would be safeguarded from toxins by a vinyl sheet placed over the mattress, to prevent bed-wetting. Cotton, the main fiber used in bedding, is a heavily treated crop, sprayed with pesticides. Cotton batting barriers are 7.5% boric acid, 2.4% antimony, and 10% poison.
As with mattresses, the label “natural” for fibers is often misleading. Choosing organic bedding is the only way to keep these chemicals out of your body. Alpaca wool is naturally fire repellant, and a good insulator. Pillows made from organic sheep or alpaca wool, and sheets made from organic cotton are good ways to start.