A recent study published February of this year by a team of environmental engineers from the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin has found that infants are exposed to high levels of chemical emissions from crib mattresses.
Below, Naturepedic founder Barry A. Cik explores aspects related to this report to provide a greater understanding of the overall topic of chemicals in crib mattresses.
Friends and Colleagues,
I’ve been asked by several people to comment on the University of Texas study regarding chemicals in crib mattresses. In particular, people want to understand the practical implications of chemicals in crib mattresses. I’ll use a Q & A format.
Are Chemicals Really a Problem?
The chemical problem is quite well established. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics says the following:
“Over the past several decades, tens of thousands of chemicals have entered commerce and the environment, often in extremely large quantities…A growing body of research indicates potential harm to child health from a range of chemical substances…there is widespread human exposure to many of these substances…These chemicals are found throughout the tissues and body fluids of children and adults alike…” [Policy Statement – Chemical Management Policy: Prioritizing Children’s Health; American Academy of Pediatrics, April 25, 2011; http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/04/25/peds.2011-0523 ]
There are approximately 84,000 chemicals in the marketplace. Most have been created since World War II, and never existed on planet Earth before. An additional 1,000 new chemicals are created every year. Most (actually, virtual all) chemicals have never been tested for toxicity or health concerns. The EPA has the authority to take action for many other concerns, but, for chemicals, the EPA has virtually no authority. Of the 84,000 chemicals in the marketplace, the EPA has so far banned five (5).
What Are the Primary Types of Chemicals of Concern in Crib Mattresses?
Flame Retardant Chemicals - These primarily include Phosphate, Brominated, and sometimes Chlorinated or Antimony Flame Retardants. When a chemical gets undue attention, and certainly if it gets banned, manufacturers tend to turn to other flame retardant chemicals. But these substitutions are frequently known as “regrettable substitutions” because the new versions generally prove to be no better than the previous versions. Various flame retardant chemicals have been associated with toxicity, mutagenicity, carcinogenicity, developmental issues, endocrine disruption, and reproductive issues, etc.
Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs) – PFCs are used as water-repellants and stain-repellants, and are frequently used to make the surface fabric of a crib mattress water-repellant. In addition to being carcinogenic, one fairly recent study associated perfluorinated compounds with Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities [Philip J. Landrigan, Children’s Environmental Health Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, New York & Luca Lambertini, National Institutes of Health; published in Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 120, Number 7, July 2012.]
Phthalates – Phthalates are used to soften vinyl, and are linked to cancer and developmental issues. Six phthalate chemicals were banned by Congress several years ago (as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008) and a seventh has been added to California Prop 65. Meanwhile, there are at least an additional seven or eight new phthalate versions now on the market, as well as other phthalate substitutes, which are technically legal (i.e. not banned) and are being used. No one knows the effects of these substitute chemicals, and whether they will ultimately be shown to have better or worse or substantially the same health concerns.
Where Are Flame Retardants Found?
They can be found in the surface fabric of a crib mattress, and/or in a flame barrier directly beneath the surface fabric, and/or in the foam inside the mattress. Most synthetic fabrics on the market are flame-resistant because flame-retardant chemicals have been added into the fibers when the synthetic fibers were made. In the case of natural fabrics, being that the fibers themselves are natural and not synthetically created, the flame-retardant chemicals are generally added at any of several later stages of the fabric processing.
What About Using “Inherently” Flame Resistant Fabrics?
The industry sometimes uses the word “inherently” loosely. When a mattress manufacturer buys a fabric to be used on the mattress, the mattress manufacturer generally would not even know the exact chemical formulation of the fabric (which may have been made by a third party, and perhaps in China), and would not know what flame retardant chemicals have been added into the fibers. If the fabric that is used on the mattress passes the flammability test, then the mattress manufacturer will frequently simply call it an “inherently” flame-retardant fabric. However, the only truly “inherently” flame-resistant fabrics in the marketplace are fabrics that are made with fiberglass.
What About “Soybean Foam”?
Soybean Foam, Soy Foam, Eco Foam, Harvest Foam ™, Plant Derived Foam, etc. are all marketing terms. They are all Polyurethane Foam, except that some soybean or castor oil has been used to replace some of the polyols in the mix. The Law Label regulations require that these materials not be identified by their marketing terms. Rather, they must be identified by their correct technical term – which is Polyurethane Foam.
What About GREENGUARD and Other Certification Programs?
GREENGUARD is an excellent emissions certification program (and was introduced to the mattress community by Naturepedic). However, even GREENGUARD has its limits. For example, GREENGUARD only tests for the legally banned phthalates, but doesn’t test for all the replacements in the marketplace that are being used. There are other certification programs available as well. In each case, it is helpful to understand what is and is not being tested or evaluated.
Of all the certification options available in the marketplace, the certified organic program offered by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the most thorough. It requires the use of certified organic fabrics and fill, and provides a high degree of chemical safety vetting for all other non-organic components that are required in a mattress.
How Do We Stop the Use of Inappropriate Chemicals?
Manufacturers and consumers can take several steps right now. Chemicals of concern used in the manufacturing of a mattress can be replaced with less hazardous alternatives. This reduces the risk up-front. Then, exposure can frequently be limited in the product design and/or by separating the baby from the consumer item. In the case of a crib mattress, this might include the use of an organic pad over the mattress. Then, of course, manufacturers should be required to disclose and be transparent regarding what is being offered to the consumer.
Ultimately, the American Academy of Pediatrics says it best: “Manufacturers of chemicals are not required to test chemicals before they are marketed…Concerns about chemicals are permitted to be kept from the public…those who propose to market a chemical must be mandated to provide evidence that the product has been tested…relevant to the special needs of pregnant women and children…” [ibid]
- Barry A. Cik