Eco Wise

Mattress Eco-Matters: Don't Take It Lying Down

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Your mattress might be an environmental nightmare.

Most mattresses, as well as memory foam and egg-crate covers, are made with petroleum-based ingredients such as polyurethane foam, which can emit a strong smell because of organic solvents. And most also contain flame retardants, required by fire-safety laws but often harmful to human health. In 2005, toxic fireproofing chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were phased out of production, but some of their replacements are almost as bad, says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

Just how hazardous can a mattress -- or pad or pillow -- be? The answer might be enough to make you lose sleep. Regular tossing and turning causes a mattress's foam to break down, and the resulting dust can float into the air you breathe. A 2006 Consumer Product Safety Commission study estimated that the average adult sleeping on a conventional mattress will be exposed to 0.802 milligrams of antimony and 0.081 milligrams of boric acid -- which is commonly used to kill cockroaches -- every night. The report deems these amounts safe for those older than 5, but numerous studies have linked both substances to a host of adverse health effects at various doses, and the cumulative effect of daily exposure is unknown. In addition, a number of recent studies have detected PBDEs in household dust, including in homes in the D.C. area.

Of course, airborne toxins are ubiquitous, and mattresses are only one source. That said, if you're buying a new one, including those for infants, you should consider going chemical-free. On the market are several mattresses made with organic and non-toxic materials such as wool and latex from rubber trees -- both naturally fire-resistant, negating the need for chemical flameproofing. Though they aren't cheap, the cost to the environment of making them is less than the cost of traditional mattresses.

One option comes from green lifestyle impresario Danny Seo, who has developed a line of organic and bamboo home furnishings for JCPenney. His Simmons Natural Care mattresses (from $1,599, available late this month at JCPenney stores) have natural latex cores, soy-based foam and surfaces covered with Tencel, a fabric made from wood pulp. Eco-Green Living (1469 Church St. NW, 202-437-7110) also offers chemical-free, latex-based mattresses, as do such Web retailers as the Organic Mattress Store (, and Simply Organic Sleep ( Even such mainstream retailers as 1-800-Mattress offer natural mattresses from Vivetique and other brands.

It's good to remember, however, that anything bought new has an environmental footprint. Mattresses are large items that require energy to build and transport. And old mattresses are difficult to recycle in the area, although a dedicated mattress recycling facility is under construction in Frederick. "There is something to be said for keeping what you have and not creating more waste," Lunder says.

If you're concerned about toxins but not ready to replace your old mattress, you can take steps to improve indoor air quality:

· "It's difficult to gauge how much of the chemicals seep out, but it also depends on how you're protecting it," says Seo, who recommends a barrier cloth cover (made from tightly woven cotton and typically used for allergy protection) to keep some compounds from escaping.

· If a mattress or pillow is noticeably odoriferous, letting it air out in a shed for a few days will at least help keep the chemicals out of the bedroom, although they'll still be in the environment. "Avoiding things that stink" -- that new-foam smell -- "is a great rule of thumb for environmental health," Lunder says.

· Finally, stocking up on such houseplants as spider plants and ferns, which absorb airborne pollutants, can help you rest easier.

-- Eviana Hartman

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