August 29, 2016 - Marshall Coyle


Date: 07/16/2016    Written by: Hiyaguha Cohen
Carcinogenic Memory Foam Mattresses | Health Blog

If you’ve ever shopped for a mattress, you know how gnarly the process can be. First of all, manufacturers sell the same mattresses under different names to each outlet, so you can’t know if the Pillow-soft Sealy at Macy’s is the same thing as the Regency Comfort at Mattress World, rendering price and quality comparisons impossible. Plus, mattress salespeople can be even more aggressive than their car sales counterparts, willing to say anything to loosen your wallet. They’ll wax poetic about spring density and foam layers, about thickness and softness and about how all your back problems will disappear if only you fork over the $4000 for the top-of-the-line. What they don’t mention is that no matter the spring count or the comfort index, that pricey mattress might well make you good and sick.

Sick from a mattress? You bet. One of the main problems has to do with the composition of the mattress itself. Most mattresses these days are made from a toxic stew of components and then treated with toxic flame-retardant chemicals. That cozy-as-mittens memory-foam layer is particularly problematic. It’s made from high-tech polyurethane foam–a petroleum product–and then it has extra chemicals added to give it super density and viscosity.  The more chemicals, the denser the foam. You know how the mattress stinks for a few hours or days or even weeks when you first get it home? That’s because the chemicals in the mattress are unstable. The mattress keeps emitting those volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and changing its composition over time. It’s the chemical gasses that stink–thus the term “off-gassing.” And the chemicals that are off-gassed might well be harmful to your health.

Exactly what are those chemicals? It depends on the manufacturer, but according to the Lifekind Mattress Company, the typical memory foam bed is comprised of 61 chemicals. Some of those are innocuous, but unfortunately, others are not. One such toxic chemical is formaldehyde, often used in mattresses produced outside the US. Formaldehyde also arises in US-made mattresses either as a byproduct of other chemicals, or in glue used to bind fibers together, or in flame-retardants. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen linked to leukemia, nasal cancer, breast cancer, asthma, and allergies.  Last year, a Harvard School of Public Health study found that men who work with formaldehyde products had triple the risk of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

 Formaldehyde, though, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the chemical stew. Most mattresses contain diisocyanates such as MDI and TDI, which may be carcinogenic and have been linked to respiratory disorders. Other common chemicals used in mattress production include the suspected carcinogens methylene dianiline, vinylidene chloride, methylene chloride, and dimethylformamide. There’s also methyl benzene, a nervous system disruptor. The risks from these chemicals are mostly from exposure during off-gassing, but gasses usually are still emitted at low levels even years later as the mattress breaks down.

Keep in mind that even innerspring mattresses might have a memory foam component. If they don’t, that hardly means they’re safe. Both memory foam and innerspring mattresses get sprayed with flame retardants, and that’s a big problem. Flame retardants in general have a worrisome history health-wise–think asbestos. Among the more common varieties used today are chlorinated tris (TDCPP), which is a possible neurotoxin, endocrine disruptor and carcinogen; Modacrylic fiber, another carcinogen, and Melamine resin, which contains formaldehyde.

Are all mattresses equally toxic? Actually, they can vary dramatically. The problem is that if you want to know exactly what’s in that mattress you’re thinking of buying, you’re up a creek. Manufacturers are not required by law to disclose the chemicals they use in making beds, and the big producers protect their formulas as “trade secrets.”

In fact, even when manufacturers seem to be transparent, you need to look carefully to make sure there isn’t deception in their advertising. For instance, the Simmons Beauty Rest website says, “Breathe easy. We use only CertiPUR-US® certified foams in every product we make, which means they’re free of formaldehyde, flame retardants, prohibited phthalates and heavy metals and also meet low-VOC standards for indoor air quality.”

Sounds great, right? Those standards do make Simmons mattresses healthier than some brands, but pay close attention to the wording in the above boast. Notice that it doesn’t say what actually isin those mattresses. Notice also the phrase “low-VOC standards.”8 What that means is that the mattresses do, in fact, emit VOCs, just not in quantities that exceed federal standards. You’re still getting the poison, and worse, you don’t know what type of poison you’re being exposed to, because it isn’t listed. Also, the claims are a little misleading. Phthalates are banned in the US anyway, so no mattresses can contain them, and mattresses don’t typically contain heavy metals.

If you’re thinking you can rush out and get an organic or low-VOC alternative, you might want to do some good research. As noted at the start of this blog, mattress salespeople are notorious, and apparently, there are plenty of false claims made by manufacturers, including by manufacturers of supposedly safer, organic products. That’s why the Federal Trade Commission sued several companies (Essentia, Relief-Mart/Temp-Flow, and Ecobaby Organics) over their claims that they made VOC-free mattresses, when the mattresses did not test VOC-free at all. Also, the Tempurpedic Company recently was sued for wrongly claiming its mattresses were formaldehyde and VOC-free.

Manufacturers argue that the VOC levels in mattresses are so low that there’s nothing to worry about. But at least some experts aren’t so sure. For instance, Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University, says, “It’s the dose that makes the poison. If [the chemicals are] not getting out, maybe it’s not a problem–but we don’t know. There are plenty of lab studies that show that these compounds are harmful. It’s just a question of what levels people are exposed to.”

If you’d rather be safe than sorry about your sleeping choice, you might want to opt for a latex-based product , but do your research. And then, of course, for those who don’t care about money, there’s the Hastens top-of-the-line, natural mattresses that have no foam and that carry the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification, which means they’re independently certified, toxin free. The catch is that they’re priced at $99,000–with an entry level version still topping $13,000. Sweet dreams are made of these!

Sick from Bed

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  • Lynette Cardinale says:

    Read article carcinogens memory foam and related to my experience Had 2 Beauty Rest mattresses removed with MF. Burning skin and pounding heart beat
    Aireloom has MF and Magneflex (from) Italy says water processed. But not wanting to buy from another country
    Now thinking of buying an OMI organicpedic “Rossa”. With organic Dunlop latex 100% organic cotton and wool also this model has coils which we are used to. Factory is claiming Eco clean environment in Yuba City, CA. We have. Cal King and priced $4345. Pricey but seems best option. Worry is .. not returnable I have hypothyroid and eczema with adds to material issues for my health
    Visited a retail store and tried it out. Was comfortable. Called factory in Yuba City and was very helpful and informative
    Can’t find reviews but rating states 79% people were happy
    Do, really need some input and advice from you. This will likely be our last mattress since both of us are in 70’s please help if you can

    • Marshall Coyle says:

      Dear Lynette,
      By no means do you have to overpay so badly to get what you want and/or need. Please send in your Survey available on the home page and mention this letter so that I will be sure to find you perfectly suitable mattresses without any noxious memory foam. I never ever ever recommend any synthetic petrochemical foams from the hundreds used in mattress making. You also don’t have to buy anything without a free or inexpensive trial because I only recommend healthy mattresses from factory direct resources that to not stick you with anything not good for your needs. Just, fill out and send in a survey. Do it soon because I am either going to stop permanently or temporarily but I am very tired and need a break. I will remove the offer when I stop so you won’t be kept waiting for nothing.

      MEMORY FOAM Memory foam  is the tobacco of the 21st century, sparing most but claiming many with its noxious gases. And like tobacco with almost everyone knowing how harmful it is, and all kinds of regulations to control it, is still available in literally thousands of places.You can thank your bought-and- paid-for  Congress for this situation. There is as much profit in making plastic memory foam from petroleum and natural gas as there is in converting tobacco leaves into “poison sticks” to smoke.

      Marshall Coyle

  • Cheryl Witek says:

    I live in Massachusetts as well. I have to use and adjustable bed so I am looking for the best mattress that can be used on adjustable frame and will give me support and pressure and pain relief as well. I am a side sleeper. I bought tempurpedic and it was horrible, select comfort not much better, a hybrid which they said will work on adjustable but at barely two years old it has indentations and uncomfortable.

    • Marshall Coyle says:

      Dear Cheryl Witek,

      I am always sorry to hear that someone is sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress. That is why I conceived of the free Mattress Survey that you will find on the home page and many others. This is the survey that I mention multiple times is necessary for me to answer any personal questions about mattresses.

      I do not deal in general answers when someone has taken the time to answer the carefully crafted questions. Your answers will tell me both what you want and what I think that you need. Your posting here has my attention, but without the kind of information I need to intelligently answer.

      When you fill out the comments section, please explain why you found the Tempurpedic so horrible and the Select Comfort so little better. Did the air pump noise, recycling all night disturb you, or were the body impressions in the cheap unsupportive polyfoam padding form so deep and so quickly. Did the chemical smell from the noxious chemicals that comprise the Tempurpedic get to you? Did the nightly sagging under your heat and weight as the 100% chemical plastic foam melting down kept you from moving, sitting up, and turning over? Did you tire of dealing with perspiration soaked nightclothes and linens from the warm and gassy Tempurpedic?

      The only “one size fits all” mattresses you see advertised are from scammers. It doesn’t matter if the company is worth billions, or just a startup. If you are old enough you will remember when cigarettes were sold as health aids. Some mattresses are good for some people, and it is my art and skill to know which and for whom.

      Marshall Coyle

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