Reader Question: How Long Will a Crib Mattress Off-Gas?

So, I got a reader question a while back, then promptly forgot about it (busy). Luckily, reader Viviane emailed me back to remind me. Good thing, because it’s an excellent question.

The question: “My daughter has been sleeping on the same non-organic crib mattress now for 2.5 years. I have crib sheet over it and a non-organic Ultimate Crib Sheet over that (that has a vinyl backing). Does the mattress still release fumes now (two years later)? It’s not in our budget to get an organic crib mattress now but perhaps for the next baby. What can I do for now to lessen the fumes if there is anything off-gassing after this long? Is it worth it to get an organic mattress pad? Also, would it be effective to get an organic Ultimate Crib Sheet?

Sadly, as I’ve found out, there’s not one easy answer to the questions above. In the past I wrote a post about safer crib mattresses. In that post I noted:

Research shows that most of the toxins and fumes released by mattresses are released early on, soon after unwrapping. Your baby’s exposure to these fumes will be limited if you take the plastic off well before your baby is due. This should release many of the fumes created by standard crib mattress baddies like PVC plastic polyurethane foam, and flame retardants.

What I said was based on info I found back then. However, since then I’ve found some other research that says even very old mattresses can off-gas, not cool. Here’s a run down of the situation.

What are flame retardants?

Many mattresses along with other items (carpet padding, foam cushions, polyester bedding and clothing, wallpaper, plastic housings for computers, faxes and other electronics, couches, chairs, etc) are treated with flame-retardants. Flame retardant use has been very widespread in the U.S. for years and continues to be a problem.

Most flame retardants are variations of the chemical PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ether). You may also hear the term Brominated Flame Retardants (pdf) which is simply a broad term for many flame retardants including PBDEs, TPPBA and HBCD.

PBDEs do not go away!

PBDEs are “persistent” which means they don’t break down in our bodies or in the environment. Instead PBDEs remain active in our air, water, soil and food, and yes even in our bodies long after exposure. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology (WSDE) via Treehugger, “PDBEs are building up in animals throughout the food chain, even turning up in orca whales in Puget Sound in Washington and in the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, PBDEs have been found in human breast milk, wild salmon and even sticks to common household dust. The U.S. Green Building Council also points out that it’s not just PBDEs we should be worried about but the entire organophosphate family of flame-retardants. Any and all flame retardants may be “Potentially toxic even if the compounds are not bioaccumulative, brominated or chlorinated.

PBDEs stay in our bodies for a very long time, accumulating in our fatty tissue and have been shown in various studies to cause multiple health problems like thyroid hormone imbalance, cancer, depressed fertility in women, lower IQ and developmental delays. They’ve also been linked to hyperactivity (ADD & ADHD), obesity, diabetes and permanent behavioral changes.

Getting back to that Treehugger/Earthtalk piece linked above, it’s noted that, “The U.S. is the world’s largest maker and user of PBDEs, and levels found in Americans are as much as 100 times higher than in Europe, where most PDBEs were banned in 2001. North American levels, say scientists, are doubling every two to five years.”

Research also shows that toddlers have higher levels of flame retardants in their blood than older children, who have higher levels than adults.

PBDEs have been banned in Washington State, Europe and some other U.S. states.

Are there benefits to using flame retardants?

Technically yes. Fire kills many, many people each year in US and causes massive property damage – some reports note $11 billion annually. Retardants do officially reduce risk of fire and thus also reduce the risk of death. injury and property damage. For example, TV sets without PBDEs are a primary cause of domestic fires in Germany where PBDEs have been banned.

However, there are other ways to prevent fires and while the short term effects of flame retardants may seem beneficial, how long do you have to pay for these benefits? There are no massive long term effect studies on flame retardants but of course we know they cause damage, as noted above. How much damage remains to be seen as time passes.

So, should you buy a newer, non-flame-treated mattress?

According to most experts, yes. That’s the one and only way to avoid sleeping right next to flame retardants. The U.S. Green Building Council notes:

  • Limit or stop all purchases of any furniture, carpet padding or any other interior items made from polyurethane foam and Dacron. (Dacron is “extruded” polyurethane foam.)
  • Ask before purchasing fabrics if they are treated with ANY flame-retardant chemicals, and purchase only 100% “permanent treatment-free” fabrics and textiles.

That said, it’s hard to find a safe mattress – even ones treated with so called eco-flame retardants aren’t safe

Mattress manufacturers don’t have to disclose chemicals in mattresses and according to one decent source, one of the only ways to get an actual chemical-free and safe mattress is “To have a doctor or chiropractor write you a prescription for a chemical-free mattress, and then find a manufacturer to make one for you.” This same source also recommends looking for 100 percent wool, toxin-free mattresses, putting your mattress into a waterproof mattress cover which might help reduce your may exposure to chemicals or to look for a mattress made with Kevlar instead of flame retardant chemicals.

Will covering older flame retardant treated objects help?

Not so much. According to all the new research I found it says you should replace older polyurethane foam furnishings not simply recover them as the new fabric, sheet or other cover will not magically trap the contaminants.

What if you really can’t afford a new organic baby mattress?

The U.S. Green Building Council notes you can help limit the effects of exposure to flame retardant chemicals by doing the following:

  • “Vacuum your home frequently, including all furnishings, with a HEPA vacuum cleaner that meets current standards for air tightness.
  • Use HEPA air cleaners, particularly in the bedroom. Make sure to purchase TRUE HEPA. And get one with a good, large carbon filter. The best HEPA filters also contain up to 18 lbs. of carbon for filtering out both contaminated dust and VOCs.”

To sum up – it’s all very confusing for the average consumer:

  • Flame retardants and other chemical treatments used for mattress are harmful and super persistent; even so called greener treatments may not be safe.
  • It’s difficult to find a chemical-free mattress, but it’s smart to try.
  • Covering an old mattress won’t help according to most sources, but a few sources note that maybe a waterproof cover can help.
  • Cleaning your home well is a must, since dust is a major carrier of flame retardant chemicals.

Whew. All in all, not the best answer ever, but sadly there’s a ton of mix-mashed info out there. I’d suggest looking for the safest mattress you can find and keep up with your dusting. If you can’t afford a new mattress, or find one, I’d also note that panicking about it seems kind of fruitless, considering how abundant flame retardant chemicals are in the environment AND because of how difficult it seems to be to find a safe mattress.

Basically, if you’re in the USA, you’re going to be exposed to off-gassing. Yes, you should try to limit exposure, but the U.S. government along with mattress, and other home supply manufacturers sure aren’t making it easy.

Later I’ll be back with some info on safer mattresses (hopefully). I’m going to look around and see what I can find out.

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