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Chemical-laden mattresses keeping you up at night?

July 31st, 2008

By Catherine Girardeau

So you need to replace your mattress, and you want to do the green right thing, for your health and for the environment. You may be trying to reduce your overall carbon footprint, or perhaps to choose a product that’s better for your health. Ideally, you can do both.

Unfortunately, there is a plethora of “natural,” “green,” “eco-friendly” mattress solutions out there, some with a hefty price tag. How’s a consumer to know what’s worth springing for – and what’s not?

Conventional mattresses are very likely to contain chemicals, some potentially toxic to humans and/or harmful to the environment. One way to go green is to choose a mattress with fewer chemicals or no chemicals.

My husband and I went the less-toxic, rather than 100 percent chemical-free, route. We bought a new mattress from Keetsa, which offers an alternative to the traditional memory-foam mattress. We had been shopping for a Tempurpedic because we loved the feel of “memory foam” (made of visco-elastic polyurethane). But polyurethane, a petroleum product, releases gasses from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause respiratory harm. They’re also highly flammable, which makes them more likely to be treated with chemical flame retardants.

Friends who were in the same boat recommended Keetsa. We zipped over from the mattress discount warehouse to Keetsa’s San Francisco showroom, lay down on the Tea Leaf Supreme, (pictured below) a mattress they said contained lower-emission memory foam blended with green tea leaves, anti-bacterial silver and organic cotton. We were instantly transported to mattress nirvana.

The price, at $1,759, was a little higher than Tempurpedic, which runs about $1,499 for the lowest-priced model, but we felt good about the reduced VOC emissions (almost zero, according to Joe Alexander, the sales and marketing director, pictured), and the fact that our mattress and its modular box spring were packed in boxes we could fit into our car. Keetsa’s mattresses are made in China in a Keetsa-owned factory, Alexander said, which is is “ISO 900″ rated for quality management and pays a “living wage.”

There are other green mattress options for chemically sensitive people, or those who are committed to 100 percent organic materials. Northern California-based Lifekind, Inc. makes what it says are 100 percent organic, chemical-free mattresses in its Yuba City factory. (Their “organicpedic” natural rubber mattress is pictured above.) The company was started by chronically chemically sensitive Walt Bader, who wanted to make beds in which he could sleep.

Sylvia Seymour, a Lifekind representative, said, “It comes down to what we’re exposing ourselves to for a third of our lives.” Lifekind’s mattresses are made from three ingredients: pure wool (used both as stuffing and quilting material and as a flame-resistant barrier), certified organic cotton, and 100 perent natural rubber, harvested from rubber trees, imported in powder form in tightly sealed metal drums, and reconstituted in the U.S. and formed into the mattress core.

Lifekind sells organic mattresses with metal inner-springs as well. Lifekind’s prices for king-sized mattresses, until Sept. 1, 2008, range from $2,595 for the “Euro” (which is a completely natural-rubber mattress) to $3,695 for the OrganicPedic, a three-layer natural-rubber bed geared toward people with pressure point discomfort. Other companies offering fully natural rubber mattresses with organic wool and cotton include FloBeds ($1,949 to $2,949) and Organic Mattresses, Inc. All three companies make and ship their beds from their own U.S. manufacturing facilities.

Conventional mattresses may have chemicals in the materials they’re made of (typically polyester, polyurethane foams, synthetic latex, Styrofoam and nylon), with additional chemicals introduced in the form of flame retardants, required by the government.

A 2007 national fire-resistance standard for mattresses requires a tougher test than ever before, resisting ignition when exposed to open flames. Mattress manufacturers can make mattresses meet the standard any way they choose. Some use fire-retardant chemicals. Some use chemical-free, naturally fire-resistant fabric barriers. Some use a combination of both.

A mattress made from organic cotton or wool doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free of fire retardants or other chemicals, but, because these materials are more inherently flame-resistant than foam, they require fewer or no added chemicals to meet safety standards. Rubber is naturally flame resistant and wool is being increasingly used as a non-toxic fire-resistant barrier in mattresses. Organic materials – those grown without pesticides – are a greener choice because they are better for the environment.

However, Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at Environmental Working Group, a health and safety watchdog group, said, “Organic fabrics don’t necessarily offer any health and safety benefits to the consumer.”

The Environmental Working Group is concerned about health and safety hazards, though, and some mattresses do present such dangers to consumers.

The group has published research on PBDEs, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which have long been used in foam furniture as flame-retardants — and have been found to cause developmental harm. Thankfully, the most commonly used form of these chemicals was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 2005. So you can be pretty sure your new U.S. or European-made mattress is free of the banned PBDEs.

But your new mattress could have other chemical flame retardants in it, such as brominated hydrocarbons or chlorinated TRIS, a cancer-causing chemical that was banned from children’s sleepwear in 1977. Most manufacturers won’t tell you which chemicals they use as flame-retardants because they consider it a trade secret. As the environmental group’s Lunder said, “There isn’t really any system for directing manufacturers toward the least-toxic products.”

And toxic they can be, some consumers claim. One previously healthy Texas woman, Tanya Tollefson, shared a horror story about health issues both she and her husband experienced that started as soon as they brought their new standard mattress home. Tollefson said the couple’s symptoms ranged from weepy eyes, to severe headaches and tinnitus. These symptoms continued unabated for two months until they replaced the mattress with a wool-wrapped, 100 percent natural latex one from FloBeds (pictured above).

“We got the mattress in the home and within the first week we started noticing these health issues,” said Tollefson, a mother of three in her 30s. “Several that started occurring at the same time, and they finally went away or subsided after the mattress was out of the house.”

“As soon as the mattress was gone, Damian’s headaches were gone. The weepy eyes quit.”

While they don’t know for certain whether their symptoms were related to chemical flame retardants, or the mattress materials, or both, theirs is not an isolated example – other consumers share their mattress-related health issues at Chem-Tox, a website put together by a professor at the University of Florida.

As Lunder mentioned, few U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations exist to monitor indoor air quality, but there is an independent certification, Greenguard, that can give consumers some measurable information about the levels of chemicals their mattresses release into the air.

The Greenguard Certification Program is an industry-independent, voluntary third party testing program for low-emitting products and materials, overseen by a non-profit organization, the Greenguard Environmental Institute. The Greenguard Online Product Guide features products which are regularly tested to ensure their chemical and particle emissions meet acceptable indoor air quality guidelines and standards. A search on the guide turned up 16 mattresses with Greenguard certification, from three companies: Lifekind, Naturepedic (baby products), and Organic Mattresses, Inc.

The Environmental Working Group maintains a list of PBDE-free products, including mattresess, cribs and futons. IKEA is one company on the environmental group’s lists as phasing out all PBDEs from their products. European Sleepworks, also on that list, sells mattresses certified by a Swiss association, Oeko-Tex (which claims to thoroughly test its textiles for harmful chemicals and health hazards).

Companies that sell greener products sometimes go the extra mile to try to green their business model as well. Both Keetsa and FloBeds compress and pack their mattresses into boxes that fit in a standard car (Keetsa) or can be shipped by standard shippers like UPS (FloBeds). Keetsa doesn’t use delivery trucks, and sales and marketing director Joe Alexander said they could fit five times as many mattresses into a standard shipping container than traditional mattress companies, further reducing the business’ overall carbon footprint.

The bottom line? A little research can go a long way towards a greener night’s sleep.



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