Do Mattresses Contain Flame Retardants?

Health conscious consumers know that flame retardants can pose numerous health risks. This begs the question, do mattresses contain flame retardants?

By Nicole Gleichmann

Consumers want mattresses that are safe, both from fire and for their long-term health. Consumers also care about the environmental impact of the products that they buy. Sadly, many of the mattresses on the market today contain questionable chemicals known as flame retardants.

Research suggests that these chemicals may be doing more harm than good when it comes to our health and that of the world in which we live. The good news is that there are better alternatives, you just have to know what to look for.

Fire extinguisher in the snow

What Are Flame Retardants?

Flame retardants are chemicals designed to reduce the flammability of a multitude of consumer products. There are many classes of flame retardants, some that are likely more dangerous than others.

Many mattresses and other consumer goods contain chemical flame retardants. From adult mattresses and crib mattresses to children’s pajamas and upholstered furniture, most houses in the United States contain products with chemical flame retardants.

Fortunately, not every mattress will contain chemical flame retardants. There are ways to incorporate fire safety standards that are much safer for our health and better for the environment.

Why Do Mattresses Have Flame Retardants?

If there is one part of our home that most of us would love to be safe from fires, it is our mattresses. Mattresses are where we spend 1/3 of our lives resting and recovering, so we want them to be as safe as they can be.

This desire led to the implementation of Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117). TB117 was the first fire safety law implemented in California in 1975. It required furniture, particularly that containing polyurethane foam, to meet flammability standards, with the ultimate goal of protecting consumers and their families.

Now, all mattresses in the United States must pass tests for fire safety. This entails an open flame test as well as a smoldering ignition test. If a mattress doesn’t pass these tests, it cannot be sold in the US.

But there are huge flaws in the existing fire safety laws. While they make clear the fire safety standards that must be met, they don’t set safety standards on how companies must meet these standards. In this “Wild West” of sorts, companies have formulated chemical compounds that slow the spread of a fire that can be added to mattresses and other household items. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals have turned out to be toxic to humans and the environment.

The Dangers of Flame Retardants

Most of the chemical flame retardants used today, and in the past, have never been evaluated for safety or environmental impact. Once the chemicals are produced, manufacturers have a vested financial interest in their continued use in spite of safety concerns. Plus, these synthetic chemicals are one of the cheapest ways to pass fire safety tests.

There may be no better example of the damage that these toxic chemicals can cause than polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). This class of chemical compounds was used as flame retardants until their manufacturing was banned in the United States in 1979.

PCBs can damage health in a multitude of ways, including in ways that we still do not fully understand today. They are known carcinogens, may cause liver damage, and can cause skin conditions like rashes and acne. Animal studies have found PCBs to impact the reproductive, immune, and endocrine systems. These effects may also occur in humans, but we do not know.

These compounds are easily dispersed in the environment, traveling far and wide and accumulating in certain species as they move up the food chain. With over half of the PCBs ever produced released into the environment, their damage continues to this day.

Some of the health concerns related to this and other flame retardants in mattresses and other furniture include:

  • Cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Hormonal dysregulation
  • Lower IQ
  • Reduced fertility
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactivity
  • Reduced birth weight

This is where consumers would hope that the US government would step in. Even though the government is doing their part to put a stop to further PCB damage, they are not stopping the production and distribution of other chemicals that may prove to be just as dangerous. It is largely left up to us, the consumer, to do our homework and demand the quality standards that are important to us. What we demand is heard by the mattress industry as a whole.

What Are the Dangerous Flame Retardants?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urges consumers to avoid products that contain one primary class of flame retardants: organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs). Exposure to OFRs has been linked to:

  • Hyperactivity in children
  • Learning deficits in children
  • Memory troubles
  • Cancer
  • Decreased IQ
  • Hormone disorders
  • Immune disorders

Not only are these chemicals not safe for our health, but they aren’t even all that effective. Because small amounts are usually used in any one product, it is not enough to stop a large fire from spreading.

There are many other potentially harmful fire retardant chemicals, including:

  • Antimony trioxide
  • Boric acid
  • Decabromodiphenyl oxide (Deca)
  • Melamine
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
  • Vinylidene chloride

There are undoubtedly many other classes of flame retardants that will prove to be detrimental to human health. Many of the chemical flame retardants used in mattresses have not been tested for their long-term safety in humans. What this means is that it is best to steer clear of mattresses that use any kind of chemical flame retardant.

Are There Safe Alternatives to Flame Retardants in Mattresses?

We do have some good news to share with you. There are many mattresses available that do not contain flame retardants. This includes all types of mattresses, from memory foam to innerspring and beyond. If you want to sleep soundly knowing that you are safe from these chemicals, all you need to do is your homework and purchase a mattress from a company that values the long-term safety of their customers.

Organic mattresses often use organic cotton or wool. One of the best options is untreated organic wool, a completely natural and safe flame retardant. Because it can hold much of its weight in moisture, it takes more time to catch on fire than most materials used in mattresses. Additionally, its structure is such that there is very little oxygen within, which is needed for a fire to spread.

Another option is to go with a latex mattress. Latex itself is a material that is naturally fire-resistant. There are both natural latex mattresses made from the rubber tree and synthetic options. Opt for the natural latex mattress if your goal is to limit your exposure to questionable chemicals, and still check to make sure that no fire retardants were used.

Rayon, a textile made from cellulose fiber bonded to silica, is a third option. While it is not completely natural or environmentally friendly, it is free from dangerous chemicals such as those found in flame retardants.

You can find both luxury and budget mattresses that use safer alternatives instead of flame-retardant chemicals. This means that anyone who is buying a new mattress has options that can help protect their long-term health.


Closing Thoughts

Mattresses that contain flame retardant chemicals are a poor choice for us and our planet. Instead, shop for a mattress that is free from these toxic chemicals. There are plenty of good options out there, just be sure to do your due diligence before buying your next mattress.


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