• Thu, Jan 15 2009

Today’s New York Times: “Toxic Bedrooms”

Beauty begins with a good night’s sleep. Perhaps the best beauty item may be the mattress. The New York Times article, “The Stuffing that Dreams are made of?” quotes Walter Bader, the author of “Toxic Bedrooms: Your Guide to a Safe Night’s Sleep” (Freedom Publishing, 2007).

Mr. Bader, a longtime sufferer of the condition known as multiple chemical sensitivity, has founded a company called Organic Mattresses, Inc. that manufactures and markets organic mattresses and commercial mattresses. “There’s always the issue of potential contamination. Polyester and all this stuff goes airborne. Who knows what goes where?”

An excerpt from the article:

In stores and on the Web, she found plenty of mattresses labeled “organic,” “natural” or “eco-friendly,” but little guidance about what exactly that meant, or what made any one of them better than — or even different from — another, or from a conventional mattress. Vast disparities in pricing, from a little more than $100 to more than $500, only added to the confusion.

….

Stores across the country have lately been trumpeting the benefits of “organic” and “natural” mattresses, for adults as well as babies. There are now models made with soybeans, stuffed with coconut husks, infused with green tea and treated with aloe vera (“known to have a significant effect on energy levels,” according to a press release from Serta).

But as mattresses like these have become increasingly common — and an increasingly popular subject of online discussion forums for parents — it has become ever harder for consumers to sort through the panoply of manufacturers’ claims.

No government agency regulates the labeling of mattresses as “organic” or “natural,” and trade groups like the International Sleep Products Association and the Specialty Sleep Association offer their members no guidelines for using the terms. Throughout the industry — as a number of people within it acknowledged in interviews — promotional materials are rife with vague or misleading information. “The whole thing is a smoke and mirrors industry,” said Ralph Rossdeutscher, the president and owner of Natura World, a manufacturer in Cambridge, Ontario.

….

“The chemicals in consumer products are a huge problem,” she said. “Mattresses are one of the only things where it’s not a problem.”

But as awareness of toxic chemicals in ordinary products has become widespread, many consumers have been drawn to arguments like Ms. Dadd’s.

In recent decades, most mattresses have been made either with metal springs sandwiched between layers of polyurethane foam, or with just foam. In showrooms, salespeople typically focus on firmness, talking about the number of springs or the density of the foam. What they rarely bring up — but what has become increasingly common knowledge among consumers — is that polyurethane foam is made from petroleum, and that it can emit volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.’s), which have been linked to respiratory irritation and other health problems, according to both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Salespeople are also unlikely, green-minded advocates say, to talk about the chemical makeup of fire retardants. In the 1970s, when cigarettes were the main cause of mattress fires, polyurethane foam was itself seen as a retardant, because cigarettes don’t make foam ignite. Open flame, on the other hand, does, and in later years, when candles and children playing with matches were the bigger threats, manufacturers began treating some foam with polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or P.B.D.E.’s. This type of fire retardant began to worry environmentalists and health experts as scientists found them accumulating in places as diverse as seal blubber in Greenland and the breast milk of American women.

In 2004, after animal studies suggested that P.B.D.E.’s impaired development of the nervous and reproductive systems, their manufacturers voluntarily stopped making them in the form that the Polyurethane Foam Association said was used in some mattresses. Most of the new fire retardants introduced since then consist of synthetic fibers that block fire, and in many cases consumers have no way of knowing what they contain, since the fibers are proprietary and manufacturers are not required to disclose their composition.

The material that covers a mattress — its ticking — is another source of concern. Conventional mattresses for children are often covered in vinyl, which begins life as a hard plastic and is softened using additional chemicals, frequently ones called phthalates. But small amounts of phthalates have been found in human tissue, and have also been linked to health problems. Last year California became the first state to ban the sale of mattresses with phthalates for use by children, in a law that became effective on Jan. 1. On Feb. 10, a federal law passed by Congress in August will forbid the use of three types of phthalates in products for young children, including mattresses.

Even if consumer concerns about health risks are exaggerated or entirely misguided, though, the lack of clear standards for mattresses labeled as organic or natural — and in some cases, a lack of transparency about their contents — may risk feeding the kind of suspicions that Mr. Luedeka noted. Serta, for example, describes its Perfect Balance Organic Crib and Toddler Bed Mattress as having a phthalate-free vinyl cover and “organic cotton fill,” but does not disclose all its other contents. When contacted by a reporter, Kelly Rampson, a spokeswoman for Serta International, would not say exactly how much of the filling is organic cotton, and referred all questions to LaJobi Industries, which makes the mattress for Serta. A LaJobi spokeswoman also declined to identify other filling components.

“Most people don’t think or realize that memory foam is made from petroleum,” Mr. Alexander added, referring to the high-density form of polyurethane foam that has been popular in recent years. “People need to start paying more attention to what they’re sleeping on. They need to stop going into stores and believing everything they tell them. They need to take personal responsibility for their personal health. Nobody is regulating it.”

“Green products have really taken off in the last two or three years, and it’s a hard thing to really get your hands around,” said Ryan Trainer, the executive vice president of the International Sleep Products Association. “What is green? The food people are farthest ahead on this issue and even they are having difficulties.”

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