Is a Memory Foam Mattress Safe for You? Toxic Materials in Foam

by Jenn

Memory foam is a type of viscoelastic foam, generally manufactured using polyurethane form. The foam contains certain chemicals that increase its density and provide it with viscoelastic properties. This means that the foam will soften with your body heat and the pressure of your body, and mold around your pressure point when you sleep. 

This provides excellent support for your shoulders, hips, lower back, buttocks, and knees, and is recommended for those suffering from arthritis, neck pain, and lower back pain. Once you wake up or move your sleeping position during the night, the area of memory foam you are not in contact with goes flat again – hence its name! Due to this property, you need to use special frames/foundations for memory foam mattresses.

However, there may be health risks presented by the chemicals that make memory foam what it is, as well as those chemicals used to create polyurethane foams in general, with or without viscoelasticity. It is these that we shall focus on here.

Is a Memory Foam Mattress Safe for You? Toxic Materials in Foam

Chemicals Used in Memory Foam Manufacture

Many people notice a chemical smell coming from their memory foam mattress when they first open the package. This comes from the volatile substances used in the foam’s manufacture. These should eventually evaporate away, leaving the mattress odor free.  However, the memory foam ingredients and fire proofing chemicals may cause a problem to some people.  Here are those substances which are commonly used in memory foam mattresses, though not necessarily in yours.

Polyols and Diisocyanates

These are the two main ingredients used to manufacture polyester foams. There are two major forms of diisocyanates: the relatively toxic TDI (Toluene diisocyanate) and the less toxic MDI (methylene diphenyl diisocyanate.) Polyols are substances with more than one alcohol (OH) chemical group, generally formed from glycols and other polyols such as glycerols.  

Although all of these ingredients have a level of toxicity, they are reacted in carefully measured quantities so that there in no excess left after the reaction1. Because of this, no exposure limits have been set in the U.S. by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) or ACGIH (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists).

Most materials dangerous to humans have either been banned from use or manufacturers have voluntarily discontinued their use.  Among these are tetrachloroethane, tetrachloroethylene and CFCs (chlorinated fluorocarbons). However, it cannot be certain that imported products are all free of these substances.  The UK and EU apply similar regulations to the US, although some Asian manufacturers may not be bound by such restrictions.  That said, many Chinese and other Asian companies apply international standards rigorously.

Flame Retardants

Because polyurethane foams can be highly flammable, they must be treated with flame retardants.2 Brominated and Chlorinated fire retardants are carcinogenic and have been phased out in the US and Europe. The same applies to many others, although some standards referencing flame retardants apply only to upholstered furniture, not mattresses. That said, many manufacturers apply their own safety standards regarding toxic materials. On the other hand, the chlorinated organophosphate TDCPP can be hazardous to human health, although it use has not yet been banned.

While flame retardants have been found to be toxic to one degree or another, not all have been banned for use in mattresses: much is being left voluntary. However, New Thinking on Flame Retardants from 2008 has led to most Western mattress manufacturers taking a fresh look at the components of their products. There are few doubts that the relatively new technology of memory foam mattresses has become safer over the past few years – whether for legislative or voluntary reasons.

Polyurethane manufacturers in the United States and Europe are highly regulated with regard to the ingredients they can use. The most hazardous materials used in their manufacture have generally been banned, although work may still have to be done regarding fire retardants. VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are by and large not so hazardous these days, and fewer complaints are being received regarding off-gassing and persistent odors. For examples, the CFCs used for blowing the polyurethane into a foam are no longer used, although the chemicals used in imports are not always known.

Allergic Reactions to Polyurethane Foam Chemicals

The nature of some of the chemicals used in the manufacture of polyurethane foams of any type, not only memory foams, is one of the main issues you may come across.  Exposure to even small amounts of some chemicals, including diisocyanates, can trigger an allergic reaction. Those who have come into contact with certain chemicals over their lifetime can become sensitized to them.

That means that they will suffer an allergic reaction to even the smallest amounts of such substances. If you know you are sensitized to any chemical, keep way from any item that is manufactured using it. Even tiny amounts can affect you. That may be why the vast majority of people can use certain types of foam all their lives without any effect, but one person can have a significant allergic reaction that could have serious effects. There is no solution to this, other than to stay clear of any article that makes you break out in a rash.

How To Minimize the Risk

How can you minimize the risk presented by the constituents of memory foams? Information is one of the major issues because few suppliers know what raw materials the manufacturers are using. Ask:

  • Where the foam was manufactured: US or Europe is likely better than Asia (though not always!)
  • Where the mattress itself was manufactured: Same comment as above.
  • What is used to meet flame retardant standards.
  • Whether the mattress/polyurethane foam conforms to some standard such CertiPUR-US and EuroPUR (foam) or OEKO-TEX ( textiles)

Memory foam mattresses are the highest rated for their beneficial properties. Some people are concerned at the odor they may smell when they first open the pack, but this should disappear through time as residual VOCs evaporate off. That is what VOC means: a ‘volatile organic compound’ and not all VOCs are harmful. Some people do get concerned by the chemical ingredients used in their manufacture, and rightly so.  However, the toxic ones have generally been banned, or at least regulated to safe levels. The fears have been largely unsubstantiated and there is little evidence that memory foam mattresses are unsafe to use.

According to authorities such as the EPA and ACC, finished polyurethane foam is non-toxic.  By understanding what potential components may be harmful, and asking manufacturers and retailers valid questions they should be able to answer, you can assure yourself that the memory foam mattress you purchase will be extremely unlikely to harm you. Nothing is 100% safe: even water can be harmful if you drink too much of it – or breathe it in!

Level of Complaints Re Toxic Materials in Foam

Complaints are very few. In fact, even the level of complaints regarding toxic materials in foam are very low. Sure, you get some comments regarding the chemical smell when the mattress is first used, but this odor generally dissipates after a short period – a day or two. The best way to deal with it is to remove the cover, if it is removable, then leave it in a ventilated room for a few days.  Then you should be able to experience all the benefits that memory foam mattress can give you – without the smell.

Health Issues With Fiberglass Mattress Covers

Some mattresses, including memory foam mattresses, are fitted with fiberglass covers. There have been a number of complaints regarding degradation, and the fiber glass causing severe itching and other medical problems. This may be an issue, and it is starting to look like a genuine problem.  Many believe that you should try to avoid mattresses with fiberglass covers.

Is a Memory Foam Mattress Safe For You: Conclusion

Our conclusion concurs with those of many others that have assessed the health risks associated with polyurethane-based memory foam. The vast majority are able to use these mattresses without any issue. However, there are some that may be sensitized to, or allergic to, some of the substances used in their manufacture.

Legislation has not yet been able to ban every substance that is bad for your sleep, but you can mitigate the chances of you having a health issue by knowing the right questions to ask when buying a memory foam mattress as well as investing some time in the mattress comparison. Nothing is 100% safe, and that includes mattresses.

However, by educating yourself to understand what your mattress is made from, how it is made and where it is made, you may avoid purchasing those memory foam mattresses that do not follow the rules – just like almost  other product in the world where some people may cut corners to keep costs low and profits high. Ask the right questions and refuse to buy if you don’t get the right answers – or any answers in some cases!

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