Is Mattress Off-Gassing Dangerous?

Find out whether that pungent new mattress smell is harmful to you

By Loren Bullock

If you have ever unpacked a mattress, you have probably noticed the smell: something chemical, like a new car or a can of paint. This mattress off-gassing can be off-putting, and you will probably start to think that this smell can’t be healthy to inhale. To discover the answer to that burning question, we must first explore what causes off-gassing.

What is Mattress Off-Gassing?

The process of mattress off-gassing begins when you open the package to your brand new mattress. Inside the package, there is plastic wrap which holds the vacuum sealed mattress, full of VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds. These VOCs break down and form gasses, and when the gasses are released after you unbox the mattress, they create a chemical smell—also known as that “new mattress smell.”

What are VOCs?

VOC stands for volatile organic compounds. These chemical compounds are commonly found in polyurethane foam mattresses which, when released, come together to create that “new mattress smell.” The VOCs in polyurethane are the same chemicals used in flame retardation and plastics.

What concerns people about their exposure to the VOCs mattresses are known to release is that certain compounds, such as formaldehyde and benzene, are linked to cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency cites some of the health effects these gaseous chemicals cause, such as headaches, dizziness, eye irritation, or central nervous system damage.

Which VOCs Are Released?

VOCs are usually found in foams and adhesives, which is why memory foam mattresses have stronger gassing odors than other types of mattresses. These VOCs are a strong component in making mattresses flame retardant during the manufacturing process and are found in many household products. VOCs are a mix of chemical compounds:

  • Chlorofluorocarbons CFCs: a non-toxic mix of chemicals with atoms containing hydrogen, carbon, fluorine, and chlorine that are used for refrigeration, packing, and most aerosol sprays. This compound is a known ozone depleter and is being phased out.
  • Formaldehyde: a naturally occurring compound that is used mainly in paper and wood products or for preservation. Some people have great sensitivity to the smell of this compound.
  • Toluene: a solvent used to make adhesives, paint thinners, gasoline, and rubber.
  • Benzene: an organic chemical compound used in detergents, plastics, and dyes. Benzene is naturally released through fires and volcanoes. It is also responsible for the pungent smell of gasoline.
  • Methylene: a chemical compound used in paint stripping, oven cleaners, and foam production.
  • Naphthalene: a chemical compound used in mothballs, plastics, insecticides, and synthetic fibers in foams.
  • Trichloroethane: an organic compound used as a solvent. It usually helps make adhesives, inks, and oil cleaners for metal car parts.
  • Perfluorocarbon PFCs: a mix of non-toxic organic compounds that contain carbon and fluorine that are used in solvents and oxygen tanks.

The Effects of Off-Gassing

Now that you know the gist of what mattress off-gassing is, you are probably wondering how this process will affect you. This is a hot-button issue under heavy debate, but the answer depends on how long you expose yourself to these VOCs.

Short Term

Just to be clear, most people only deal with mattress off-gassing in the short-term—right after unboxing, and mattress off-gassing is not really dangerous if the VOC exposure is temporary. During short-term exposure, levels of VOCs are low enough to just be mildly annoying or irritating. No scientific study has definitively proven health risks for this brief amount of time, but it is still being tested. The side effects you may experience with this exposure length are headaches, nausea, dizziness, or eye irritation. These should dissipate when you are no longer near the mattress.

Long Term

Long-term exposure to VOCs is a little more risky, but unless your career is strictly unboxing mattresses or sticking your nose into household cleaners, you should be safe. Some VOCs, such as formaldehyde, are known carcinogens, and it is not just mattresses that make you susceptible to these harmful chemicals: home furniture, cleaning products, and carpeting all have some level of VOC emission. Some of the long-term effects of VOC exposure include difficulty breathing or worsening asthma symptoms, asthma attacks, coughing, congestion, throat irritation, allergic reactions, fatigue, increased cancer risks, and damage of kidneys, liver, or the central nervous system. However, as long as you properly air out the mattress, these long-term effects should not be applicable.

Research on Mattress Off-Gassing

Senior researcher Yael Dubowski and his team set out to find answers about the dangers of mattress off-gassing.Though the brunt of mattress off-gassing happens when you first unpack your memory foam mattress, the study was done on a mattresses that had been aired out for 6 months.

The researchers simulated sleeping conditions mimicking the higher temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide humans produce when they sleep, as well as the duration of rest throughout the night; they did this for 8 different polyurethane foam mattresses.

In short, they found that VOC emissions see a significant increase when people sleep on their polyurethane foam mattress, with the biggest contributor being the elevated heat. Simply put: the heat your body gives off as you sleep sinks into the mattress and allows for more VOCs to be released.

Their biggest concern is when it comes to children. Infants and toddlers have smaller bodies and spend more time asleep on their mattresses than adults do. This puts them at a higher risk when it comes to toxic mattress off-gassing effects.

Additionally, though the VOC levels fall below the NSRL, long-term exposure is more risky than that of the short-term. Spending years sleeping on a polyurethane foam mattress can increase your likelihood of suffering the side effects the EPA warns us about.

How to Deal with Mattress Off-Gassing

After reading about all the effects off-gassing can have, you might be scared to sleep on your memory foam mattress—but do not worry. There are ways to prep and sleep on a mattress that is off-gassing without fearing for your safety.

The first step is to open your new mattress and remove the plastic immediately. Either do this outside or in a well-ventilated area. Using fans and opening windows should also help air circulation. Most VOCs will escape within the hour, and the toxic chemicals will go with them. The rest will take a little longer to leave. If you want to be extra safe, the best thing to do is let your mattress air out for 3 days to 1 week. The smell should be a good indicator of whether or not it is done.

If you are still worried about off-gassing, there are a few barriers you could put between yourself and the mattress. A regular mattress cover or sheets will not do the trick because a stronger layer of protection is needed—fabric simply is not thick enough.

The best blocking agent is a set of polyethylene sheets or a polyethylene cover. Polyethylene is non-toxic and thick enough to prevent gas from permeating the sheets or mattress cover. They make these sheets from crib mattress sizes to king mattress sizes, so people of all ages are protected from any off-gassing effects they fear.

Can You Prevent Off-Gassing?

Check out some things you can do to reduce VOC emissions, and thus, their effects.

Buy a Mattress Made of Different Materials

Sleeping on a polyurethane foam mattress puts you at the biggest risk for VOC inhalation. Mattresses made of cotton, wool, and natural latex dramatically produce less VOC emissions than their foam counterparts. Organic mattresses are made of all natural materials, so there is virtually no risk of chemical off-gassing. Check out our guide on the best organic mattresses here.

Sleep in a Ventilated Area

The scientists that did this study cite good indoor ventilation as the top defense against high VOC levels. Indoor air has up to 10 times more VOCs than outdoor air because it continuously circulates in the same space. Allowing new, fresh air into your home will dissipate some of this. Open your windows. Use a fan. Keep the doors in your house open.

Buy CertiPUR-US Certified Memory Foam

CertiPUR-US is a non-profit organization that strives to give consumers piece of mind with the foams that they purchase. In order to get this certification, the polyurethane foams undergo rigorous testing to ensure that the foam is

  • Made with no ozone depleters
  • Made without formaldehyde
  • Made without lead, mercury, or other heavy metals
  • Made without other toxic chemicals
  • Low in VOC emissions for indoor air quality: less than 0.5 parts per million

A word of caution: make sure you are careful when buying a mattress with a CertiPUR-US certification. If the brand is not listed on the Certi-PUR website as partnered with the organization, the stamp of approval could be faulty or just for show.

Get a VOC-Specific Air Filter

If changing your mattress is not a viable option for you, financially or otherwise, you can buy an air filter that focuses on VOCs. These filters focus on trapping the dangerous chemicals emitted and filtering out clean air.

VOCs do not only come from memory foam mattresses. They are also found in household cleaners such as furniture polish, oven cleaners, carpeting, or anything in an aerosol spray. It may do you and your family good to research VOC air filters and place them around the house.


Summary

Mattress off-gassing is the process of VOC release, causing a strong odor when you first open your new memory foam mattress. The answer to the question “Is it dangerous?” is a simple one—not in the short-term, which is about the amount of time it takes for your new mattress to off-gas: the VOC levels are not high enough and are not around long enough to cause adverse health effects. If you do not want to risk it, cover it with polyethylene sheets or opt for a mattress that is organic or CertiPUR US certified.


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