Toxic Chemicals in Baby Crib Mattresses
Babies and children are constantly exposed to chemicals. Most of these chemicals have never been tested for toxicity to babies and young children, so caution is recommended to keep your baby safe from exposure. You might be aware of the chemicals in crib, bassinet, cradle and porta-crib mattresses and are searching for a healthy organic baby crib mattress. Organic is important, but the main thing to determine is whether the mattress is non-toxic. Even organic mattresses can contain unsafe materials.
Your baby’s mattress exposure is 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, lying directly on the mattress, breathing in and absorbing whatever is in the mattress.
A 2014 study done at The University of Texas at Austin found that babies are exposed to high levels of chemical emissions from crib mattresses while they sleep. The researchers found that body heat increases emissions and chemical emissions are strongest in the sleeping infant’s immediate breathing zone. These chemical exposures can negatively affect the health and brain development of babies.
When it comes to your baby, there is no safe level of exposure.
I have thoroughly investigated the safety and toxicity of baby crib mattresses to find the best and safest organic crib mattress. I wrote the following report to help you distinguish facts from the mountains of misinformation and choose the best organic crib mattress for your baby.
The following report will tell you:
- Why you should never put your baby to sleep on a crib mattress with common materials and components
- Why it’s essential to keep your baby’s crib mattress free from wetness and moisture
- What are the safest and best crib mattresses you can buy
Crib Mattress Toxicity: How to Find the Safest Options
What’s in a Typical Crib or Baby Mattress?
Polyurethane foam is the filling material used in most baby mattresses. It is made from petroleum and is highly flammable. It contains chemical additives and flame retardants. Foam breaks down over time into small particles, which can become airborne.
Toluene diisocyanate and methylene diphenyl diisocynate are isocyanates used as primary building blocks of foam and mixed with water and polyols. Toluene is a known carcinogen and exposure to isocyanates can irritate mucous membranes and cause asthma, respiratory disease, skin inflammation, and chemical sensitivity.
Waterproof Covering – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) with Phthalates
Many 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 in use today. Vinyl chloride, an intermediate component in the manufacturing of PVC, is a combination of petroleum and chlorine, and is a known human carcinogen. Vinyl may also contain flame retardants.
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 leach out or off-gas into the surrounding air.
Since plasticizers emit from vinyl at a slow rate, it’s likely that babies are constantly exposed to these chemicals while they sleep. Babies breathe in plasticizers and absorb them through their skin. Health effects associated with chemical plasticizers include:
- reproductive harm
- early onset of puberty
- kidney and liver damage
It’s important to know that although certain phthalates have been banned in the US, alternatives now 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.
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.
Some manufacturers are starting to replace vinyl coverings with fabric attached to a polyurethane backing. This means the crib mattress surface is not waterproof and that’s a problem. Crib mattresses need to be waterproof to avoid baby sleeping on mildew, mold, and fungus.
And some crib mattress manufacturers are spraying the top of the mattress with PFCs – perfluorinated chemicals – to make the fabric waterproof. This is the same toxic stuff that’s in Teflon and Scotchguard. Not a good thing for your baby to be sleeping on!
Strict Flammability Standards
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 all mattress manufacturers to meet strict flammability standards. Ironically, most do this by adding more toxic chemicals.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are the primary fire retardant chemicals used in mattresses for decades. These chemicals break down and leach out into the surrounding air. Research has shown that microscopic particles from fire retardant chemicals contaminate household dust.
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 (babies pick up dust while crawling. Dust sticks to their hands and go into their mouths. Babies also chew on toys and other items that contain dust.)
PBDE exposure is linked to numerous adverse health effects, including:
- immune suppression
- hormone disruption
- developmental delays
- learning and memory problems
- behavior changes
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.
All Mattresses Must be Flame Resistant
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. 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.
Mattresses and Crib Death (SIDS)
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 scientifically proven, nor have they been disproven, and there is urgent need for more research.
A 100% successful crib death prevention campaign has been happening in New Zealand for the past two decades. Midwives and other healthcare professionals throughout New Zealand advise parents to wrap the mattress to block toxic gases from exposing the baby. 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 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. This makes sense since 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:
Alternatives for Healthy Organic Baby Crib Mattresses
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.
Your baby’s mattress must be organic AND non-toxic.
How to Know if a Mattress is Really Organic
Let’s clarify what it means to be organic. When referring to agricultural products (regardless of whether edible, like apples and tomatoes, or non-edible, like cotton), organic refers to the way that the 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. Organic wool 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.
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 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. With a mattress, we’re concerned with the finished product AND all the individual materials within the mattress. Although there are many GOTS approved certifiers throughout the world, the largest certifier in the US is Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO).
Are Eco-Friendly or Plant-Based Mattresses Healthy?
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 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 might be 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.
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, however this is extremely rare.
Surface Material (Covering)
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 non-toxic waterproof covering is essential to eliminate wetness and dust mites from a mattress. Plastic is currently the only viable way to make a mattress completely waterproof. But not all plastics are the same. Some are quite toxic and environmental unfriendly (as in vinyl) while others are non-toxic and more environmentally safe. It’s imperative that the plastic be non-toxic.
100% natural organic crib mattresses (latex/wool) usually have an organic cotton surface, and these mattress are not waterproof. It’s imperative to cover your latex/wool mattress with either a organic cotton waterproof pad with a plastic lining or an organic wool mattress pad specifically designed to block wetness. The wool pad should be layered with a cotton protector pad.
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.
Wool is Not Waterproof
Since wool is moisture-resistant and dries quickly, wool mattress or “puddle” pads are sometimes used with mattresses that are not waterproof. Many wool puddle or piddle pads actually have synthetics in them, such as polyester, so look for 100% certified organic wool from a company you can trust.
You can’t count on wool alone 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. If you’re going to use a non-waterproof mattress, I recommend layering a 100% organic wool puddle pad (specifically designed to block wetness) with an organic cotton mattress protector to serve as an extra layer of protection. Cotton absorbs moisture and wool repels and wicks moisture away. When used in concert, the wool and cotton pads together can block wetness.
However, the best option is to get a safe waterproof crib mattress in the first place, so you don’t have to worry about mold and mildew.
As mentioned before, 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. The prescription must be 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). However, there are now mattresses that pass fire standards without toxic materials that can be sold without a prescription.
How Do Organic Mattresses Pass Fire Standards?
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.
Best Organic Crib Mattress Options
Waterproof Baby Mattresses
Naturepedic crib mattresses are the only safe waterproof organic mattresses I can recommend. Naturepedic is the only company that uses food-grade, plant-based polyethylene (made from non-GMO sugar cane) for the purpose of waterproofing and dust mite proofing. Strict independent testing confirms there are no phthalates or any toxic chemicals in this polyethylene.
Naturepedic baby and crib mattresses have 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 organic cotton fabric, organic cotton fiber and PLA fiber (made from plant starch).
All Naturepedic baby and crib mattresses are GOTS certified. They are certified to the GOTS standard by Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) and Control Union (CU). They have also passed independent testing by the strictest GREENGUARD Select standard.
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.
Naturepedic also offers a non-waterproof quilted organic cotton crib mattress with a certified organic cotton covering. This is a traditional innerspring mattress that is safe and healthy.
See Healthy Child’s Organic Baby Mattresses (bassinet, cradle, porta-crib)
See Healthy Child’s organic crib mattresses
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