Toxic Chemicals in Baby Crib Mattresses
Common materials in crib mattresses as well as bassinet and cradle mattresses can be harmful and even potentially life threatening to your baby. Just because these materials are used by the majority of manufacturers, doesn’t mean they are safe. And just because a baby crib mattress is organic does not mean it is non-toxic.
For the past 12 years, I have been thoroughly investigating all aspects of the safety and toxicity of baby crib mattresses to find the best organic crib mattress – the most non-toxic and the safest crib mattresses available. There is a tremendous amount of confusing claims and misleading information out there on websites. I wrote the following report to help you distinguish facts from misinformation and find the best crib mattress for your baby.
The outcome of my extensive research into all the crib mattresses on the market is that the Naturepedic No-Compromise Organic Crib Mattress is currently the only waterproof organic crib mattress available in the U.S. that is genuinely non-toxic.
Read the report below to find out why you should never put your baby to sleep on a crib mattress with common materials and components that are toxic, why a waterproof crib mattress is essential, and why Naturepedic is the safest and best crib mattress you can buy.
Your baby’s mattress is likely to be the most prevalent toxic exposure, since it’s up-close, extensive, and long-term. Babies sleep on a mattress for 10-14 hours or more a day during their most fragile developmental years. During this time, they are lying directly on the mattress, breathing in and absorbing chemical off-gassing. Baby mattresses include crib, cradle, bassinet, porta-crib, and co-sleeper mattresses. All of these types of mattresses typically contain materials that can be very toxic.
Polyurethane foam is the filling material used in most baby mattresses. Polyurethane foam is made from petroleum and is highly flammable. Depending on how it’s processed, polyurethane foam may contain various chemical additives, including formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and other well established toxic chemicals.
Potential health effects of polyurethane foam that have been reported on manufacturer material safety data sheets (MSDS) include cardiac arrhythmias, breathlessness, chest discomfort, irritation of mucous membranes, headache, coughing, asthma-like allergic reaction, dizziness, weakness, fatigue, nausea, blurred vision, and reduced pulmonary function. Something worth considering is when a baby has what seems to be a cold or other virus, he or she may possibly be reacting to the mattress.
Most crib mattresses have a vinyl covering for waterproofing purposes. Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride or PVC) is considered to be one of the most toxic and environmentally unfriendly plastics used. Vinyl chloride, an intermediate component in the manufacturing of PVC, is a combination of petroleum and chlorine, and is a known human carcinogen.
Since PVC is a hard plastic, chemical plasticizers must be added to make it into a soft and flexible covering. These plasticizers (the most commonly used are phthalates) make up 30%-40% of the weight of the vinyl surface of a crib mattress. They are not bound to the vinyl and can leach out or off-gas into the surrounding air so babies can breathe them in and absorb them through their skin. Health effects associated with chemical plasticizers include reproductive harm, asthma, early onset of puberty, cancer, and kidney and liver damage.
It’s important to know that although certain phthalates have been banned in the US, alternatives being used (including legal phthalate variants) are not tested and might be just as toxic. It may take years of additional research before safety can be determined. It appears that only three forms of phthalates are currently banned for mattresses, so it is legal for manufacturers to substitute with the non-banned phthalates. There is still a phthalate (DnHP), classified as a reproductive toxicant, allowed for use in mattresses.
No one really knows what level of additives in vinyl is safe for babies. So when you see a product description with “non-toxic vinyl” or “phthalate-free vinyl”, you need to understand that it’s probably far from non-toxic.
Mattresses made with polyurethane foam and PVC are highly flammable and will burn quickly if ignited. When these mattresses burn, extremely hazardous gases are formed and released into the air. Because of this, the U.S. government requires mattress manufacturers to meet strict flammability standards. Most do this by adding more toxic chemicals. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are the primary fire retardant chemicals which have been used in mattresses for decades. The chemicals in foam products break down and are likely to leach out into the surrounding air. Research has shown that microscopic particles from fire retardant chemicals contaminate household dust. So babies are exposed to fire retardants in 3 ways:
1) Breathing the air while sleeping on the mattress
2) Absorbing the chemicals through their skin
3) Household dust – While crawling on the floor, they pick up dust, which sticks to their hands, which then go in their mouths. The dust also sticks to toys and other items they chew on.
PBDE exposure is linked to numerous adverse health effects, including immune suppression, hormone disruption, developmental delays, learning and memory problems, behavior changes, and cancer. Some states have banned certain brominated fire retardants, but these have been replaced by other PBDEs or other chemicals that may be just as toxic. Manufacturers are not required to test these chemicals for the effects on health and there is very little data available to show safety.
You can’t purchase a mattress in the US that does not pass fire-proofing laws, unless you have a prescription from a licensed physician. This goes for all mattresses – baby, child and adult – and includes organic mattresses. So if you bought a mattress without a doctor’s prescription (even 20 years ago), it contains some type of fire retardant materials, and if you bought a mattress, including a crib mattress, more than a few years ago, it most likely contains pentaBDE, a banned form of PBDEs.
Because of the huge public outcry against PBDEs (particularly pentaBDE), and because California has already banned it, mattress manufacturers are moving away from PBDEs. However, they still need to meet the government flammability standards, and their mattresses are still filled with petroleum-based polyurethane foam or so-called “soybean foam”, which remains highly flammable. So they are merely replacing these PBDE chemicals with other fire retardants, whether as additives or as barriers. In general, the mattress manufacturers do not reveal the actual specific chemicals that are used to meet the government flammability regulations, and this is perfectly legal being that the law doesn’t care how a mattress meets the standard or what chemicals are used, but only that the flammability standard is met.
A common flame retardant now being used is chlorinated Tris (TDCPP), which has been found to change the DNA of people exposed and is listed as a carcinogen. This is the same fire retardant chemical that was removed from children’s flame retardant pajamas back in the late 70s because it was suspected of causing cancer. But it wasn’t formally banned, just voluntarily removed so now it’s in couches and mattresses! It is absorbed through the skin – that’s why it was removed from children’s sleepwear. It’s also now in the household dust of most homes.
In January 2013, the Chicago Tribune reported that they found chlorinated tris in 11 crib mattresses made in China and sold in the U.S. by Babies R Us, Foundations and Angeles brands. See brands here:
Note that they only tested for chlorinated tris. This does not mean that the mattresses that tested negative for chlorinated tris are free of toxic flame retardants.
Several scientists claim that toxic gases released from crib mattresses, when breathed or absorbed by a sleeping baby, can cause crib death or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). These claims have not been 100% scientifically proven, nor have they been disproven, and there is urgent need for more research.
It is important to note that a 100% successful crib death prevention campaign has been going on in New Zealand for the past 19 years. Midwives and other healthcare professionals throughout New Zealand have been actively advising parents to wrap mattresses. During this time, there has not been a single SIDS death reported among the many (estimated over 200,000) New Zealand babies who have slept on mattresses wrapped in a specially formulated polyethylene cover. The SIDS rate in NZ has dropped dramatically since this mattress-wrapping campaign began. This is usually attributed to putting babies on their backs to sleep, and babies sleeping face up are not exposed to as much toxic gas as those sleeping with their faces in the mattress. It’s my opinion that there is enough evidence to warrant taking a precautionary approach. The following article contains more information on the crib death issue:
Learn why more research is not being done:
Most people assume that if a mattress is organic, then it must also be non-toxic and safe. This is not necessarily true. There are organic crib mattresses on the market that contain organic cotton as the filling, but the outer covering is vinyl or some other type of harmful material. In addition, fire retardants and other various chemicals may be added to the cotton or to the outer covering. It is important to check with the manufacturer and inquire about all the materials used. Organic is definitely important when choosing a mattress, but the main thing to look for is whether the mattress is non-toxic and safe for your baby.
Let’s clarify what it means to be organic. When referring to agricultural products (regardless of whether edible, like cherries and tomatoes, or non-edible, like cotton), organic refers to the way that the agricultural products are grown, raised, and processed. Only the fiber used in a mattress, such as cotton or wool, can be considered organic per the agricultural standards since these are agricultural products. Other materials in a mattress, such as a plastic covering or innersprings are not agricultural, therefore cannot be organic.
If cotton is organic, it is grown without the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers. This is important because cotton is a highly sprayed crop and the residues from pesticides can remain in the cotton fiber. Plus organic cotton goes a long way to protect the health of our environment.
When wool is organic, the sheep are fed only organic food and raised without synthetic hormones and pesticides. For instance, the sheep are not dipped in pesticides to control ticks and lice. Organic livestock producers are also required to comply with ethical management practices that support the health of the animal and the environment. Additionally, the wool is cleaned and processed without the use of toxic chemicals.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) has created strict standards for producing and processing agricultural products to be sold as organic in the US. In order to ensure that these standards are being met, the NOP has accredited about 50 organizations throughout the world as organic certifiers. When agricultural producers want their products to be labeled as organic, they must adopt certain practices for three years and then go through a certification process with one of these NOP certifiers. If the producer meets all the NOP standards, they can become certified organic, which means their agricultural products can be sold or labeled as organic.
A mattress itself is not an agricultural product and therefore cannot be certified as organic by the USDA National Organic Program. However, standards have been developed to give consumers assurance of finished products (like shirts, jackets, and other such consumer items in addition to mattresses) made with organic fibers and textiles. These standards, called the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), have become the recognized organic textile processing standards for mattresses. The standards require that all fiber and fabrics used within a mattress, with limited exceptions, must be made from National Organic Program (NOP) certified materials and processed in accordance with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). All other components (such as innersprings, fire protection, etc.) must meet stringent non-toxic standards. Although there are many GOTS approved certifiers throughout the world, the largest certifier in the US is Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO).
In recent years so-called green, eco-friendly, or plant-based mattresses have come on to the market. You may see them labeled with descriptions such as Eco Foam, Bio Foam, or Soybean Foam. What most of these manufacturers do is replace a small percentage of the polyurethane foam with plant-based ingredients. It looks great to call it “eco-friendly” or “green” but many of these mattresses are far from healthy or non-toxic. Soybean foam is usually polyurethane foam with 12-17% soybean oil mixed in. It’s at least 80% petroleum/chemical based and highly flammable so it needs fire retardant chemicals to comply with the laws. Any company can refer to their mattresses as “green”, “healthy”, or “eco-friendly” since there are no laws or guidelines that say they can’t. Don’t be fooled by this green-washing. You still may be getting a load of toxic chemicals and off-gassing with these mattresses.
Some crib mattresses have surface fabrics made from “bamboo”. This sounds good, too, until you check into the manufacturing process. Strong chemical solvents are used in the processing of bamboo resulting in a cellulose fiber similar to rayon. “Bamboo” mattress coverings are usually a synthetic fabric with not much of the bamboo plant in the finished product.
Organic cotton is the perfect filling material for a baby mattress since it is natural, non-toxic, firm and breathable. Cotton will not burst into flames (like polyurethane foam) or release toxic fumes when ignited. Since cotton is a crop that is heavily sprayed with pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals, it is important for the cotton to be certified organic.
Wool is also commonly used in mattresses and bedding since it is naturally fire resistant, does not provide a favorable environment for dust mites, and handles moisture well. Wool is an excellent bedding material for many reasons. However, wool can be allergenic and you don’t know if your baby will be allergic to wool. It may be true that most allergies to wool are actually chemical sensitivities to the chemicals used in processing wool. But people, including babies, can be allergic specifically to the natural animal fiber. It’s difficult to know in advance about a baby’s allergies and allergies can develop over time.
Latex (natural rubber) is also used as a crib mattress filling. Shopping for a latex crib mattress can be complicated since even natural latex can contain questionable chemicals added during processing. In addition, natural latex contains proteins that can be highly allergenic and known to cause anaphylactic shock. This is very rare, but you just don’t know if your baby will be allergic to natural latex.
It’s important to buy a baby mattress that is waterproof. Babies can generate a lot of wetness while they sleep, and this wetness can cause mold, mildew, fungi or bacteria to grow in the mattress. Since mold and fungi can be a health hazard for a baby, it’s crucial to not allow moisture to get into the surface of a crib mattress. A completely non-toxic plastic waterproof covering is essential to eliminate wetness and dust mites from a mattress. Plastic is currently the only viable way to make a mattress waterproof (without having to use additional covers). But not all plastics are the same. Some are quite toxic and environmental unfriendly (as in vinyl) while others are less or non-toxic and more environmentally safe. It’s imperative that the plastic be non-toxic.
Environmental scientists agree that low density, food-grade polyethylene is the safest plastic available. It has a simple molecular structure and does not contain phthalates or other unsafe additives. Unlike the production of vinyl, dioxins and other toxic chemicals are not released into the environment during production of low density polyethylene. This is the material used for the mattress covers designed to prevent SIDS in the crib death prevention campaign in NZ.
Since wool is moisture-resistant and dries quickly, wool puddle pads are widely used with mattresses that are not waterproof. But you can’t count on wool puddle pads to waterproof a mattress. If there is a lot of wetness from a baby or child, it can go through to damage the mattress and create mold and mildew problems. Using two layered wool puddle pads in a baby or child’s sleeping environment will probably prevent leakage.
The U.S. government requires mattress manufacturers and retailers to obtain a doctor’s prescription from a customer before selling a mattress that does not meet federal fire safety standards. Therefore, if you want a mattress that is not fire-proof, you must have a prescription from a physician licensed in your state that says “this patient requires a chemical-free mattress”. This can be written by any licensed physician, including medical doctors (MD), osteopaths (DO) and chiropractors (DC).
Many organic mattresses contain chemical fire retardants. Yet they are called “organic” simply because the cotton filling is organic cotton. In stores or on websites, it may say “free of fire retardants” or “PBDE-free”, but the truth is that there has to be something that is allowing it to pass the fire testing. The manufacturers may have replaced the PBDE chemicals with other non-tested fire retardants. It’s difficult to get this information out of retailers or manufacturers since most do not reveal the specific chemicals used.
Wool is fire-resistant, and is the most common fire protection used in natural, organic crib mattresses. If a wool-wrapped mattress has been tested and approved to meet flammability standards, the manufacturer is able to sell it without obtaining a prescription. There are companies that use only pure wool for this purpose. But be aware that some companies may use wool with chemical treatments added to boost the wool’s fire resistance.
Borate powder (boric acid) is also used to make mattresses fire resistant. Most mattresses treated with borate powder meet Federal flammability standards and do not require a doctor’s prescription. There is conflicting information regarding the safety of using borate powder in mattresses. Since it is an insecticide and is potentially toxic, I would avoid borate powder.
When considering where your baby sleeps, a precautionary approach regarding allergies is reasonable. It may be best to avoid baby mattress materials with allergenic properties. This includes latex and wool. According to the FDA, a product containing latex cannot be labeled as “hypoallergenic.” Wool contains lanolin and certain alcohols known to have allergenic properties. Some types of wool may contain chemical treatments that can also be allergenic. Also be aware that coconut husks (coir) use latex as a bonding agent.
The outcome of my 12 years of research into safe, non-toxic mattresses is that the Naturepedic line of crib and baby mattresses are the safest and highest quality waterproof baby mattresses. Naturepedic is the only company that uses low density, food-grade polyethylene, which meet the FDA standard for food contact, for the purpose of waterproofing and dust mite proofing. Strict independent testing confirms there are no phthalates or any toxic chemicals in this polyethylene.
None of the Naturepedic baby or crib mattresses contain any wool or latex. They use certified organic cotton as the filling material. There is no polyurethane foam in their mattresses. With Naturepedic’s innovative design, the mattresses passes all Federal and State flammability standards without the use of any fire retardant chemicals or barriers. They use natural materials (organic cotton fabric, organic cotton fiber and PLA fiber, which is made from plant starch).
All Naturepedic mattresses have passed independent testing by the strictest GREENGUARD Select standard for baby and children’s products. GREENGUARD is an independent third party certification program with stringent product emission standards to ensure the highest air quality. The GREENGUARD Children & Schools standard takes into account the special sensitivities of children and requires that products meet strict emission levels of pollutants including VOCs, formaldehyde and phthalates. The new GREENGUARD Select standard takes it even further and is the most stringent testing available.
All Naturepedic mattresses pass the GREENGUARD certification and are also certified for the stricter GREENGUARD Children & Schools standard as well as the new Select standard. Naturepedic is so far to date the only mattress company to be certified with the most stringent GREENGUARD Select certification.
In a Naturepedic mattress, there are no flame retardants or flame retardant barriers, no perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), no antibacterial treatments or biocides, no glues or adhesives, no allergens, and no GMO cotton or other GMO fibers.
For parents who do not want the waterproof plastic covering, Naturepedic also offers a non-waterproof quilted organic cotton crib mattress with a certified organic cotton covering.
See Healthy Child Organic Baby Mattresses (bassinet, cradle, porta-crib)
See our organic baby crib mattresses
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