What do you think of memory foam mattresses and toppers? Are they safe?


What do you think of memory foam mattresses and toppers? Are they safe?

Asked by Deborah Gerard, Alford, MA

I am curious about "memory foam." We are buying a new mattress and have not been able to dig up any information on memory-foam mattresses or toppers. We are also considering latex or organic cotton/wool, but we'd like to know the health implications of these other popular mattresses.

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Mary Cordaro's picture

Memory foam is, simply put, foam made from polyurethane. Also called visco-elastic polyurethane foam, memory foam poses various health and environmental concerns:

  • Petroleum. Polyurethane is synthetic and is made from petroleum products. Therefore, its production furthers our dependency on fossil fuel resources. The production of synthetics from petroleum products is energy-intensive and often generates toxic waste byproducts.
  • Not biodegradable. Polyurethane foam is not biodegradable, and it ends up in the landfill for a very long time.
  • VOCs. The chemicals in new polyurethane foam outgas into the air. These toxic chemicals are called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and you can often smell them until they dissipate. Most of the VOCs from polyurethane foam dissipate in several weeks to several months, depending on many variables, such as the types and amounts of synthetic materials; amount of fresh-air exchange in the room; temperature and humidity; and breathability of bedding materials like comforters and bedspreads.
  • PBDE flame retardants. All mattresses made with synthetic foams, batting, or fabrics must be treated with flame-retarding chemicals so that they meet the federal open-flame flammability test. Whether a mattress is made with standard polyurethane foam, memory foam, recycled polyurethane foam, Dacron, or even a combination of soy-based and polyurethane foams, there's no getting around the problem of flame retardants. Although bioaccumulative PBDEs, the most toxic flame-retardant chemicals, have been voluntarily discontinued by U.S. mattress manufacturers, the alternatives are only somewhat less toxic, and not considered acceptable by the German field of Bau-Biologie. (The measurable Bau-Biologie standards for health are perhaps the most stringent in the world.)
  • Organophosphate flame retardants. Flame-retardant chemicals in mattresses that contain any amount of polyurethane foam are called organophosphate chemicals. Unlike VOCs, these chemicals do not become gases, are not easily detectable by smell, and levels may increase over time as the materials age. Even though the levels are chronically low, since your body and face are on the mattress for a third of your life (during your most sensitive regenerative time), it might be best to consider a chemical-free alternative.

I recommend you purchase a properly constructed, 100-percent natural/organic mattress that passes the federal open-flame test, made with 100-percent natural latex instead of synthetic materials.

In addition to being less toxic, an organic mattress will also provide other health benefits. For example, while synthetic mattresses tend to hold moisture and provide favorable conditions for dust mites, an organic mattress made with natural latex and organic or chemical-free wool is naturally resistant to moisture and dust mites.

In the book Prescriptions for a Healthy House you'll find a comprehensive article that I contributed, including many other tips for choosing a truly healthy, organic mattress.