If you read CleanTechnica, no doubt you care about how our actions impact the environment. We love solar panels, electric vehicles, and wind turbines, but there are a lot of smaller changes you can also make that can make a big difference for your own health and can reduce your impact on the planet. Bedding is an easy place to start.
We spend about 8 hours each night in our beds … wait, you do get 8 hours, right?! Please ensure proper sleep so that you can help us usher in the renewables revolution! And in those 8 hours, you’re touching and breathing all the things your bed is made from. If you have a conventional mattress, that means you might be in contact with some nasty chemicals.
What Materials are in Conventional Mattresses?
“Memory foam” is the friendlier-sounding nickname for polyurethane foam. The substance is actually a man-made, petrochemical-based material.
Polyurethane foam is readily flammable. If ignited, it releases carbon monoxide, isocyanates, and hydrogen cyanide, all of which pose a fire toxicity risk, which means a tendency to catch aflame. But don’t worry, memory foam mattresses come with high amounts of flame retardant chemicals embedded into them.
Until 2004, flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were used extensively. These persistent, problematic chemicals are still an environmental and human health concern even 14 years after their ban. PBDEs were intended to enhance fire safety, but created enough environmental and medical concern for California to ban their use and sale in 2004. Nonetheless, PBDEs were found to linger in the environment and in the human body for years, with potentially toxic effects due to their bioaccumulation.
Since the 2004 banning of PBDEs, new flame retardants have been introduced quietly, without disclosure of basic information about these new industrial compounds, slowing research on their potential danger. Flame retardants are often considered proprietary, and many mattress companies don’t disclose what they’re adding to their memory foam. Worst of all, supposedly “discontinued” flame retardants with documented health effects continue to resurface in new products, likely due to poor supply-chain oversight.
These flame-retardant chemicals slowly leach out of the mattress, and off-gas over time, meaning that whatever these new flame retardants may be, consumers are likely breathing them and otherwise ingesting them. If mattress companies don’t disclose what flame retardants they use in their mattresses, there’s no way to discern, or even to begin to study, what effect these compounds have on human health and the environment.
Why Natural Latex Mattresses are a Safer Option
Natural mattresses are available, and are becoming more popular as people realize what’s hiding in their traditional mattresses. Natural mattresses are usually made from a combination of materials, including wool, cotton, and natural latex.
Natural latex mattresses* use natural materials to meet flammability requirements. Flame-retardant chemicals can be replaced with wool and still meet the standards of law, meaning that natural mattresses don’t require any chemical flame-retardant additives. The only disadvantage of a wool fire barrier is that it can be more expensive than industrial flame-retardant chemicals. That’s because organic wool farms take environmental impact very seriously, and they’re required to ensure that their sheep are fed an organic diet.
Additionally, natural latex mattresses tend to be more clear in their labeling. When shopping, check the mattress maker’s certifications. When used on its own, “natural” is a term that can be used so deceptively in marketing campaigns as to sometimes be meaningless. Some marketers will use the word “natural” and combine it with nature imagery on their packaging and promotional materials to insinuate that the product is safe.
But conscious consumers can discern whether a product is truly safe and environmentally responsible, and examine whether the mattress maker holds respected, independent certifications. Independent organizations like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) exist to help consumers identify whether their mattress is made responsibly.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is an especially stringent and reputable certification for human health and environmental safety. GOTS evaluates ecologically and socially conscious standards, then enforces those standards with complete independent certification of the textile supply chain. Harvesting raw materials, manufacturing, and labeling are all covered under GOTS. The “Made with Organic” GOTS label requires the manufacturer to use at least 70% organic fibers, while the “Organic” GOTS label requires the manufacturer to use at least 95% organic fibers.
An additional environmental benefit is that natural latex mattresses tend to be much longer-lived than traditional mattresses. An innerspring core lasts only approximately 10 years, while a latex core can last for 20 or longer, reducing your overall consumption and waste stream.
The mattress industry usually profits from consumers needing to buy new mattresses as often as possible. As an example of planned obsolescence in action, the Better Sleep Council (BSC) was founded in 1979 with the explicit goal of creating a need for consumers to replace their mattresses more often. They call this “shortening the mattress replacement cycle.” This means some mattress companies are actively taking steps to make shorter-lived mattress. Latex mattresses buck this trend by being longer-lived.
As we become evermore conscious consumers in all aspects of our life, it’s important to know more about how all the items in our life could affect our health. The more we learn about the brands that are serving us, the better!
*This post was supported by Latex for Less