Are Toxic Chemicals in Baby Crib Mattresses Poisoning Babies?
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 mattress 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. (The links below will take you to separate sections of the report and the full report is located directly below the links.)
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Babies spend 10-14 hours a day sleeping on a crib mattress so it’s vital that the mattress be safe and healthy. Did you know that the materials in many crib mattresses can expose babies to potentially toxic chemical gases while they sleep? Babies’ reproductive, neurological, immune, and respiratory systems, as well as their livers are still developing. This makes them more vulnerable to toxic chemicals, since they have a limited ability to detoxify and excrete the toxins entering their fragile systems. Low level chemical exposure during the critical period of brain development can cause more harm than high doses later in life.
Of significant concern is compelling evidence that chemical off-gassing from crib mattresses may be a cause of crib death (SIDS). It’s absolutely crucial to be certain your baby’s mattress is non-toxic.
But what does “non-toxic” mean? Anyone can place the words non-toxic on their website or product label, but does it actually mean the mattress is safe for babies? How do you know what to trust? An online search for organic crib mattresses brings up many sites claiming that their organic mattresses are non-toxic and the healthiest mattresses for babies. How do you know what is marketing hype and what is true?
I’ve been extensively researching materials in crib mattresses for over 12 years, and I’d like to help you distinguish facts from deception or misinformation. I’ve spent massive amounts of time thoroughly checking into the components and materials in best organic crib mattress, and countless phone calls and correspondence with environmental scientists and experts in toxic materials. I’ll share with you what I have found to be true while searching for safe and healthy crib mattresses.
Typical inexpensive crib mattresses as well as bassinet and cradle mattresses are usually made from polyurethane foam with a vinyl (PVC) covering. These materials are simply too potentially toxic for babies and definitely not worth taking the risk. I go into depth about the toxicity of these materials in another report.
Here’s a short summary of what you need to know about polyurethane foam and vinyl:
Polyurethane foam, the typical crib mattress filling material, is made from petroleum with toxic chemical additives. Potential health effects can 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. 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. 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 (including legal phthalate variants) are not tested and might be just as toxic. 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.
Consider a new car smell. That’s the plasticizers off-gassing from the vinyl seats. You get a similar smell from a vinyl shower curtain. These fumes should always be avoided since they are highly toxic. When these fumes are coming from crib mattresses, babies are breathing and absorbing them into their tiny developing bodies 10 – 14 hours a day.
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. These chemicals are likely to leach out into the surrounding air.
PBDE exposure is linked to numerous adverse health effects, including immune suppression, hormone disruption, learning and memory problems, behavioral 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 couple 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.
Some organic mattresses pass fire standards by using wool since wool is a fiber with natural fire retardant properties. There are companies that use only pure wool for this purpose. But be aware that some companies use wool with chemical treatments added to boost the wool’s fire resistance.
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% genetically-engineered soybean oil mixed in. It’s still mostly polyurethane foam 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.
Just because a mattress is called organic does not mean that it’s non-toxic. It really depends on all the materials used. A mattress can be called organic if it contains any organic component such as an organic cotton filling or even just an organic cotton surface fabric. Some organic mattresses have organic cotton filling with a vinyl covering. These may be called organic mattresses, but because of the vinyl covering (and most likely chemical fire retardants), these mattresses are obviously not all that healthy. It’s important to check into all materials used, and it can be difficult to get full disclosure from the retailers or the manufacturer.
Organic mattresses are not exempt from fire retardant laws, so it’s important to check into what makes the mattress compliant. Have fire retardant chemicals been added?
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 per the agricultural standards.
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).
Crib mattress buyers need to know that some companies stretch the truth or say misleading things to try to get consumers to believe they have the best mattress.
You may have seen some online organic mattress retailers claiming that their mattress manufacturer is a proud member of the National Association of Organic Mattress Industry (NAOMI). They list a set of standards that this organization endorses. The interesting thing is that if you go to the NAOMI website you’ll find that there is only one member. There are other organic mattress manufacturers that likely meet these standards but they are not members of NAOMI. Why is that? Well, NAOMI is not actually a real member organization. It was fabricated by the mattress company that happens to be the only member! NAOMI is merely a website created by a company who sells organic mattresses. It’s no surprise this company is listed as the only certified member. This is brilliant marketing, but misleading to consumers.
One site I read claims that their natural organic mattress can help reduce colds, flu and allergies because the wool and latex in their mattresses make them “bacteria-resistant”. Colds and flu are viruses and are not caused by bacteria so this is misleading.
It makes sense that a baby sleeping on a mattress that is free of toxic off-gassing may not have the compromised immunity that babies exposed to toxic gases may experience. So I suppose you could presume that any non-toxic mattress has the potential to reduce colds or flu, although I don’t make this claim since I don’t know of any actual studies confirming this. And there are many more factors involved in whether your baby gets sick or not. I’ve come to the conclusion that a waterproof, non-toxic plastic covering can provide a much healthier environment than a cotton and wool covering, since there is less potential for bacteria, mold fungi, dust mites, and other allergens with a non-toxic waterproof covering.
Even if wool and latex do reduce bacteria or mold fungi, it’s a moot point when it comes to an organic crib mattress because these mattresses usually have organic cotton (not wool or latex) as the surface material. Without proper waterproofing, a cotton surface will retain moisture, and bacteria and mold can grow quickly in moist cotton. It’s OK for cotton mattress pads and sheets to get wet since they can be washed frequently in hot water, eliminating bacteria and mold. But you can’t effectively wash a fabric crib mattress surface, unless it’s a removable cover.
While we’re on the subject of mattress pads, it’s also important to know that wool moisture pads are not waterproof. They certainly do help, but if a baby generates a lot of wetness, it can go through a wool moisture pad. Another drawback is the inability to put the wool pad in the washer or dryer.
Furthermore, I wanted to find out if wool really is bacteria and mold-resistant. So I contacted several wool researchers that are not involved in selling wool products to ask them for specifics. What I learned is that the exterior epicuticle of wool has hygrostatic properties, meaning it can absorb moisture vapor and it can also release this moisture, allowing the fiber to dry faster. This has the effect of making it more resistant to bacteria and fungi compared to some other fibers. However, warm, moist, slightly alkaline conditions in the absence of air circulation will promote bacteria and mold fungi formation in wool. A sleeping baby can produce these conditions.
Wool and latex do not promote dust mites since they are not a food source for the mites, but mattresses made with these materials can still contain dust mites. A waterproof mattress that has an attached plastic lining is dust mite-proof since the mites or their waste particles cannot get through the plastic. If you don’t have a plastic lining, you’ll need a dust-mite barrier cover that encases the entire mattress to protect against dust mites. The only safe, non-toxic dust mite barrier cover is one made from a special tightly woven organic cotton fabric. None of the plastic or synthetic blend dust mite covers on the market are recommended.
When it comes to allergies, I believe that many so-called wool allergies are actually sensitivities to the chemicals in non-organic wool. But it’s important to know that people can be allergic specifically to the natural animal fiber. It’s difficult to know in advance about a baby’s allergies and these can develop over time.
Natural rubber (latex) contains proteins that are allergenic and known to cause anaphylactic shock in some people. According to an article in the American Family Physician web archive, symptoms of latex allergy may progress rapidly and unpredictably to anaphylaxis. It’s rare, but parents should know that anaphylactic shock from an allergy to natural latex is a possibility. This life-threatening reaction to latex requires previous sensitization to latex, and I’m wondering if exposure to natural latex from sleeping on a latex crib mattress 10-14 hours a day may sensitize a baby to develop an allergy later on. There are some who say that the cotton/wool mattress covering protects from the natural latex proteins and that most of the proteins are processed out of latex anyway, but I have not seen any confirmation of this. I think it’s best to be cautious with any type of allergen when a baby is concerned.
While we’re on the subject of latex, it’s important to know that there is no such thing as 100% pure natural rubber latex. In order to make the natural rubber into a foam block, there has to be some chemical processing. Some natural latex does come close to pure, but there are many mattresses out there that are called natural latex that really are a blend of natural rubber and toxic chemicals. So if you want a latex mattress for your baby, you need to dig deep to find one that is as pure as possible.
I personally adore wool and natural latex. I sleep sandwiched in between my latex, wool, and organic cotton topper and my wool comforter. My pillow is latex. I love wool and latex bedding for myself, but I don’t create the sort of wetness that a baby does and I know for sure I’m not allergic or sensitive to these materials.
Those of you who have read my blog and newsletter know that I am a very devoted advocate for natural materials and natural holistic, green living. However, I’m not convinced that wool and latex mattresses are the best thing for a baby. Since mold fungi can be a real health issue for a baby, it’s crucial to not allow moisture to get into the surface of a crib mattress. I believe that a completely non-toxic plastic waterproof lining is important to eliminate wetness and dust mites from a mattress. I’m certainly not thrilled about using plastic for environmental reasons, but since plastic is currently the only viable way to make a mattress waterproof and dust mite proof (without having to use additional covers), I do recommend a waterproof baby crib mattress with a plastic surface lining. This is the healthiest option for a baby. The caveat is that the plastic must be non-toxic.
The crib mattresses I chose for Healthy Child are the Naturepedic Organic Crib Mattresses since they are the only waterproof mattresses that are genuinely non-toxic. I can say this with full and complete confidence since I extensively and thoroughly checked into it. Healthy Child does have wool and natural latex mattresses, but only in twin, full, queen and king sizes.
Naturepedic is a GOTS certified organic mattress and bedding company. Naturepedic mattresses are covered in low density, food-grade polyethylene, which meet the FDA standard for food contact, for the purpose of waterproofing and dust mite proofing. This type of polyethylene, coincidentally, is the same material used in BabeSafe covers for the SIDS prevention campaign in New Zealand. Environmental scientists agree that low density, food-grade polyethylene is the safest, most non-toxic 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. Naturepedic is the only mattress company in the U.S. that uses polyethylene for their crib mattress waterproof surface lining.
I read a statement on a mattress company’s website that says polyethylene contains phthalates. This is completely false and indicates the writer’s limited understanding of plastics and chemicals.
Pure plastic is not breathable so it’s important to add an organic cotton mattress pad between the fitted sheet and the mattress. In the six years that we have been offering the Naturepedic mattresses, we have never had any complaints whatsoever about the plastic covering making a baby hot or sweaty. It’s certainly not an issue when a cotton mattress pad is used. An organic cotton mattress pad is also helpful to absorb wetness, and then the waterproof mattress can simply be wiped dry.
Naturepedic meets and exceeds all Federal and State flammability standards with their own natural fire protection. It’s a completely non-toxic mixture with baking soda and hydrated silica. The silica used in Naturepedic’s fire protection system is hydrated silica, not crystalline silica. Hydrated silica is a gelatinous substance that has a long history of safe use as an ingredient in food products and has no known toxicity or carcinogenicity.
I have seen erroneous statements on mattress company websites saying crystalline silica, boric acid, and dimethyl sulfate are used in Naturepedic mattresses. This is absolutely false. Naturepedic’s fire protection contains no PBDEs or any brominated or chlorinated fire retardants. There are no harmful fire retardants at all. Naturepedic mattresses contain no PAN (polyacrylonitrile), no modacrylic, and no antimony, arsenic or phosphorus – ingredients that are often found in other crib mattresses.
All Naturepedic mattresses have been certified by GREENGUARD Select (the most stringent certification) independent testing to not release or off-gas harmful substances.
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Greenguard is an independent third party certification program with strict product emission standards. Greenguard regularly tests products to ensure strict indoor air quality standards. The GREENGUARD Children & Schools standard, introduced in 2005 by the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI), takes into account the special sensitivities of children and requires that products meet strict emission levels of pollutants including VOCs, formaldehyde and phthalates. GREENGUARD Select 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 Select standard. Naturepedic is so far to date the only mattress company to be certified with the new stricter GREENGUARD Select certification.
GREENGUARD does allow very small amounts of certain emissions so I checked into Naturepedic’s testing, which is done annually. Their mattresses test zero emissions for formaldehyde, aldehydes, and phthalates. The total amount of all other combined VOCs emitting from a Naturepedic mattress is 1/70 of the amount that the strict children’s standards allow for. This is a minute fraction of the VOCs normally in a room and is completely insignificant. There will always be some amount of VOC, even in wool and organic cotton fabrics and it’s impossible to test at zero for all the thousands of VOCs. After all my investigation and speaking with several environmental scientists, I am confident that the Naturepedic mattresses are safe and non-toxic.
I have taken the time necessary to thoroughly investigate all aspects of the safety and toxicity of crib mattresses, uncover the truth and provide the facts. There is a tremendous amount of confusing, misleading information out there. This is not acceptable, and it’s imperative to know the truth.
Even seemingly logical and helpful components used in crib mattresses can be harmful and potentially life threatening to our babies. Just because these ingredients are common doesn’t mean they are safe. And just because a mattress is called organic does not mean it’s non-toxic and the best crib mattress.
It is critical to understand this information so you can make the right choice for your children. You would never intentionally lay your babies on something that would harm them. It’s time we all understand the dangers involved in using toxic crib mattresses made from potentially toxic materials. There are better alternatives, and that’s what we need to choose for our babies.
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