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.”

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 suscept you 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.

 

What About Sleeping?

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?

The best way to prevent off-gassing to keep yourself away from products that off-gas—it really is just that simple. While buying an off-gassing mattress is not really harmful, some people prefer to live a chemical-free life. If that describes you, purchasing a certified organic mattress is the best way to go because they shy away from anything that is not all natural, including harmful chemicals. There are organic memory foam mattresses, organic innerspring mattresses, organic hybrid mattresses, and natural latex mattresses, so you have quite a few options.

However, the organic path is the more expensive one because they are not as mass produced. If this is the case for you, that does not mean you are stuck with off-gassing mattresses forever if you do not want to be, just check for a CertiPUR US certification. While the EPA does not regulate VOC levels in household products, independent testing can assure you of the levels you are getting.

Mattresses that are CertiPUR US Certified means that the mattress materials are made without ozone depleters; PBDEs, TDCPP or TCEP; mercury, lead, and other heavy metals; formaldehyde; or phthalates. CertiPUR also independently tests to make sure their foam has very low VOC emissions, so the off-gassing process is over within a matter of hours rather than days.


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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