Over the past 70 years, the mattress industry has undergone a significant transformation. The demand for cheap and fast mass production led to the surge of synthetic mattresses, such as polyurethane foam and synthetic latex, which flooded the market and became the conventional choice. This shift was not surprising, given that the average home has been slowly transforming into a monster of petroleum-based products and synthetic alternatives. The new wave of lab-grown mattresses was just another piece of the equation. However, this pursuit of cheap and fast production always leads to health concerns.
The Impact of Mattress Contents on Your Health
As individuals invest roughly one-third of their lifetimes in slumber, it is hardly astonishing that the composition of their mattresses wields a substantial influence on their well-being. Opting for synthetic materials inevitably subjects your body to unconventional substances that potentially harbor health hazards. This circumstance is notably exemplified by the prevalent harmful compounds discovered within polyurethane foam, synthetic latex, and flame retardants.
For these chemicals to induce harm, they must initially interact with the human body, a process facilitated through either direct physical contact or inhalation. Given the typical 8-hour sleep cycle and a body temperature range hovering between 97°F and 99°F, the human system produces sufficient heat to activate chemicals characterized by a low boiling point. This activation effectively converts them into noxious fumes, commonly recognized as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the result of the evaporation and transformation into inhalable gases of these frequently encountered toxic substances. These emissions can frequently lead to mild symptoms like allergies, skin irritations, headaches, nausea, and other similar discomforts. Nevertheless, extended exposure to VOCs and the more persistent detrimental chemicals present in polyurethane foam, synthetic latex, and flame-retardants can potentially result in severe consequences such as the onset of cancer, DNA damage, or the disruption of the endocrine system.
In simple terms, polyurethane foam belongs to the plastic family and is derived from petroleum-based sources. It's a blend of chemicals with a low boiling point, which gradually dissipates during slumber. Originally employed as a rubber substitute during World War II, polyurethane foam made its way into the mattress industry because of its cost-effectiveness. However, the product's quality and durability are revealed in its rather disconcerting propensity to "deteriorate." Over a mere decade of usage, a polyurethane foam mattress can shed more than half of its weight due to off-gassing and oxidation. In essence, individuals can anticipate inhaling and exhaling over 50% of their mattress's mass in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and dust, which results from the oxidation of polyurethane and subsequently settles throughout their residence.
To gain a deeper comprehension of the implications stemming from the pervasive harmful chemicals residing within polyurethane foam, let's delve into the analysis of some of the principal synthetic elements it contains.
Benzene is a chemical characterized by a pleasant aroma but harbors notably detrimental effects on the human organism. As per the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), sustained exposure to benzene over an extended period can instigate cancer in human beings. This compound, in particular, poses a substantial threat to bone marrow, resulting in the perturbation of red blood cell production. Anemia can be considered a milder symptom of benzene exposure, while in more severe instances, it may culminate in the development of leukemia or cancer affecting blood-forming organs.
Formaldehyde is an odorless gas, and the primary mode of exposure to this chemical is through inhalation. As per the American Cancer Society, formaldehyde is categorized as a human carcinogen, capable of causing mild irritations such as teary eyes, coughing, and skin sensitivities, or potentially triggering life-threatening conditions like leukemia. This highly prevalent chemical finds extensive use in insulation, construction, and various household products, and is even an ingredient in cosmetic formulations.
PFOS, also known as Perfluorooctyl Sulfonate, is a chemical recognized as a worldwide environmental contaminant with detrimental impacts on human health. This toxin inflicts harm on the endocrine, immune, and reproductive systems, and has the potential to induce brain disorders and impair cognitive development. Remarkably, while it continues to be employed in the production of foam mattresses in the United States, the European Union has prohibited its use since 2020 under the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) regulation.
Polyurethane foam is a well-known source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Many of the chemicals utilized in the manufacturing of this material possess a low boiling point. Under room temperature conditions, your foam mattress effectively transforms into a gas-emitting foam block, which gradually but steadily contaminates the room's air. Given that indoor air quality is often five times worse than its outdoor counterpart, the accumulation of VOCs raises significant concerns about the indoor environment's health. Depending on the concentration and composition of these VOCs, potential side effects from inhaling these toxins may include irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat, reduced concentration, headaches, nausea, or even liver damage. In some instances, prolonged exposure could lead to the development of cancer.
Synthetic latex is a relatively straightforward substance composed of two petroleum-derived components known as styrene and butadiene, both of which are hazardous to human health and are categorized as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Given this assortment of toxic mattress materials, synthetic latex stands out as one of the more "efficient" off-gassing substances. The primary rationale for its preference by manufacturers over natural latex is its straightforward and cost-effective production. Despite its resource-intensive nature and the lack of recyclability or biodegradability, synthetic latex maintains commercial allure due to its affordability.
Considering that synthetic latex is essentially a laboratory-manufactured plastic, it is prudent to dissect its constituent elements and examine the potential health hazards they might present.
Styrene, a derivative of benzene, as previously mentioned in the analysis of polyurethane foam, exists as a colorless, oily liquid highly prone to off-gassing. It poses significant dangers to human health and gives rise to a wide array of issues. As per the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), styrene elevates the risk of lymphoma and leukemia, simultaneously exerting toxicity on the brain, liver, and lungs. Additional symptoms of exposure to this chemical may encompass fatigue, headaches, depression, or hearing impairment. In summary, styrene is an all-encompassing detrimental compound that should be minimized in exposure to the greatest extent possible.
Butadiene essentially serves as a precursor to synthetic rubber, finding multiple industrial applications. This colorless, highly flammable gas is derived from petroleum processing. As documented in a report by the United States Department of Labor, butadiene is identified as a carcinogen, posing risks to the nervous system, eyes, and skin. When combined with styrene, these two substances create a hazardous combination that can be injurious to human health over extended periods of exposure.
Chemical Fire Retardants
Due to the highly flammable nature of polyurethane foam and synthetic latex mattresses, legal mandates necessitate the treatment of these mattresses with fire retardants to meet federal flammability standards. However, the expediency in terms of time and cost comes at a considerable cost to both workers and consumer health. Commonly employed substances in the mattress industry, such as boric acid, antimony, and halogenated flame retardants, are widely recognized for their detrimental health consequences. These toxic components within mattresses have the potential to disrupt the timing of puberty and inflict harm on the reproductive system, brain, and nerve functionality. In more severe instances, the aforementioned fire retardants can adversely affect the health and functioning of sperm across two entire generations. Consequently, flame retardants exacerbate the toxic repercussions of the hazardous compounds found within most commercially available synthetic mattress materials.
The Quantity Determines the Harm
The hazards associated with prevalent toxic chemicals are contingent upon their concentration and the duration of exposure. Typically, the most severe health impacts manifest after prolonged exposure to elevated chemical concentrations. Usually, those most affected are the individuals actively engaged in the production of mattresses or the chemicals themselves.
Frequently, the concentration of chemicals within mattresses may be minimal, resulting in only mild symptoms. Nevertheless, many of these same chemicals are also present in other household items, leading to a significant overall increase in volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.
Naturally, the toxicity level is always contingent on the individual's age and size. Adults possess a greater tolerance for toxicity compared to children. This is why substances like polyurethane foam, synthetic latex, and flame retardants can be particularly harmful to infants and young children, potentially exerting adverse influences on their development.
Breaking Free from the Onslaught of Chemicals
Ventilating your room or investing in protective covers to reduce VOC emissions primarily addresses the symptoms without tackling the underlying issue. To entirely eradicate the toxic burden of your mattress, a more comprehensive approach is necessary. The most effective and foolproof method for combating VOCs is to eliminate their source - replace your synthetic mattress with a natural one.
In many instances, the intent behind synthetics is to imitate natural counterparts, aiming to render the "replica" more cost-effective and simpler to manufacture. Polyurethane foam and other artificial materials are engineered with the aim of emulating the inherent attributes of organic materials like wool, cotton, or horsehair, which have evolved over millions of years.
Mattresses crafted from 100% pure wool have been demonstrated to release no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and are entirely free from harmful chemicals. Wool exhibits inherent fire resistance, water-repellency, exceptional breathability, and insulation properties. Consequently, there's no necessity to incorporate detrimental synthetic materials when the fundamental qualities sought in a mattress are naturally inherent to the raw material. Additionally, wool's antimicrobial attributes, along with its resistance to dust mites and mildew, render it a safer option, particularly for infants and children, given its hypoallergenic and body-friendly characteristics.
Opting for an all-natural material is not an alternative but a longstanding tradition that has endured for countless centuries. It's only in the recent 70 years that we have veered away from the natural path and ventured into the realm of synthetics. Considering the deluge of diseases and adverse effects triggered by these prevalent toxic synthetic chemicals, it becomes increasingly evident that the human body inherently craves what is natural.