Is My Mattress Releasing Toxins? A New Study Weighs In

By Loren Bullock

There is a crazy amount of benefits to sleeping on a memory foam mattress: spinal alignment, pressure-point relief, body contouring, and unmatched comfort. Not only that, but memory foam mattresses are super affordable. But of course, we all know that nothing is perfect. Along with comfort and value, memory foam also brings controversy.

For years we have been waiting for a definitive answer to the question, “Is my memory foam mattress releasing toxins?” and we may have finally gotten an answer. On July 10th, a study was published in Environmental Science & Technology on VOC emissions, and the results might shock you.

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—seems like a big risk to take just for a mattress. So, senior researcher Yael Dubowski and his team set out to find answers.

The Study

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.

For each mattress, the testing was done in a parallel continuous-flow chamber system, so they could monitor the variables of each mattress. They also measured how the mattress covers affected VOC emissions as well.

What They Found

In short, 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.

Even though this mattress aired out for months, the VOC levels were still noticeable; however, adults should not have to worry because the exposure to the toxic chemicals was below the NSRL, or No Significant Risk Levels, set in California. This means that though the elevated VOC emissions were detected, there is no significant risk of inhaling them throughout the night.

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.

Ways to Reduce VOC Emissions

If these results freak you out more than they placate you, 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

Yael Dubowski and his team set out to see how sleeping conditions affect natural VOC emissions in polyurethane foam mattresses. As a result, they found that body heat increases off-gassing effects—even on mattresses that had been aired out for 6 months.

However, these VOC levels are only a danger to small children, and there are steps you can take to reduce or eliminate these effects: buy an organic mattress or one that is CertiPUR-US certified, make sure your house is well ventilated, or purchase an air filter that targets VOCs for a worry-free sleep.


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