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There has been a growing concern over the use of fire retardants in upholstered furniture and mattresses for some time now. With more media focus placed on the negative health effects that chemicals pose to us all on a daily basis the one place where everyone seems focused on reducing harmful toxins is within the bedroom.
First and foremost, we'd like to bring attention to one very critical piece of information. Even if you do not read the rest of this article, please read this one paragraph. Most of the time, you'll ask a mattress retailer or a mattress manufacturer the seemingly simple question, "do you treat your mattresses with chemical flame retardants?" Their answer, the vast majority of the time will be "no, we do not treat our mattresses with chemical flame retardants." Seems simple, right? Unfortunately it is not. The reality is that no, mattress manufacturers are not sitting around spraying their mattress with chemical fire barriers. In actual fact, the individual raw materials used to upholster the mattress, such as the outer fabric and the polyurethane foam content are the materials which would be treated. These treatments are not performed by the mattress manufacturer. They're treated by whomever made the fabric or the polyurethane foam! Read on to learn about how to avoid this situation. In short, the only regularly utilized natural fire retardant proven to work without resorting to chemical fire barriers is lot's and lot's of sheep's wool!
A big challenge for most people when shopping for mattresses and furniture is that there is no current legislation that compels manufacturer’s to indicate whether or not flame retardants are present in their product. Even though banning fire retardants from polyurethane foam would be a giant step forward it is important to remember that this does not necessarily mean that your mattress does not contain harmful chemicals. Polyurethane foam in particular is mainly chemically based made up of hydrocarbons, which are of course flammable. Typically even if a chemical is banned there is almost always a new one to take its place. A good example of this how Halogenated chemicals like PBDE’s and PCB’s are similar in structure. The Stockholm Convention (The global treaty to protect human health and the environment) has banned 21 POP’s (Persistent Organic Pollutants), all of which are Halogenated.
Ironically, household dust is the main source of the chemical flame retardants which we are exposed to each day. It is also important to keep in mind that where you live has an impact on the typical amount of household dust you might be exposed to. For instance the worst percentage of PBDE’s found in household dust is in California while the least is in Germany. Although the majority of Canadians are exposed to less household dust than those in the United States, we fall drastically short compared to the higher standards in Europe.
The problem is (that) most manufacturers, including Canadian companies, adhere to California’s standard TB117 for fire retardants in upholstered furniture. After operating under the same regulations for over 30 years the state of California released on February 8, 2013 a draft of TB117-2013 intended to update the standard for flammability without the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals. It is important to note that the overhaul does not include 16 CFR 1633 which is the flammability standard for mattresses.
Fortunately there is a non-toxic method to meet the current flammability standard for mattresses: Wool. Although the number of mattress makers using pure wool as a fire barrier is relatively small, The Mattress & Sleep Company offers many of these options from Canadian manufacturers such as Green Sleep or Sleeptek. By quilting wool around the entire mattress, 16 CFR 1633 (the most stringent mattress flammability standard in the world) can easily be met.
Wool is known to burn at the lowest flame velocity and in some cases will eventually extinguish the flame on its own depending on the amount (of wool) present. There are of course other method’s to meet 16 CFR 1633. Many mattresses marketed as natural will often employ boron (boric acid) which is typically woven with small amounts of wool and polyester to pass the open flame test. The problem is boron is a known pesticide, so for those looking to avoid chemicals it is important to understand the methods employed by the mattress maker.
Polyurethane is the most commonly used material in most mattresses today. Approximately two thirds of its composition is made of a chemical called Toluene Disocyanate or TDI for short. The other third of the finished foam is made from alcohol based Polyols which are mostly made form petrochemicals. Some Polyols are made from plant based alcohols like soybean, castor bean oil, tea tree oil, and of course the ever popular essential oils. Although there are some natural ingredients, polyurethane foam still remains almost entirely petroleum based. The final stage in the production of polyurethane foam requires a blowing agent. This is a chemical in the form of a gas which is blown into the mixture to turn it into foam which essentially aerates the mix.
Tip: Canadian and American law labels require this foam to be listed on the label. If a mattress is marketed as having natural based foam, it’s easy to verify by simply reading the law label. If the foam is polyurethane, it will be listed clearly on the tag.
This is where it can get even more confusing. Companies marketing memory foam products that are apparently plant based, essential oils, and water-expanded or water born often claim they are healthier than regular memory foam or polyurethane foam. Although their VOC emissions are lower than traditional foams they are usually comprised of at least 70 percent petrochemicals.
Memory foam is polyurethane foam, just with a different chemical formula and blowing agents.
Gel infused memory foam mattresses are another unique way of marketing foam with the features and benefits of sleeping cooler but they are chemically based as well. It is important to remember that no amount of water, essential oil, or gel is going to allow for a mattress to be free of chemicals and should never be presented to anyone as natural or healthy.
Natural Latex and Slow Responsive Latex are another variety of foam that can be confusing for consumers as they are both marketed as completely natural and sometimes organic when they are not. Latex is a sap that is tapped form a rubber tree which in its infancy is completely natural. The problem is latex is almost always blended with styrene and butadiene, which are two petroleum based chemicals, and each of which is a listed VOC.
In order to manufacture the slower response latex (which mimics memory foam) additional chemical additives are added to the mixture. Latex needs to be manufactured locally where the rubber tree sap is harvested in order to maintain its’ purity. When the sap is left for too long the need for stabilizers and chemicals is used in order to transport the product in liquid or powder form. It is important to note that any latex manufactured in North America or Europe will never be entirely natural, due to the need to add chemical stabilizers. These stabilizers are necessary so that the rubber tree milk can be still used in production.
The Majority of latex foam is made with these chemical stabilizers, in addition to most latex containing styrene and butadiene. The Mattress & Sleep Company offers mattresses from both Green Sleep and Sleeptek which is entirely natural with no stabilizers and zero styrene-butadiene content. We refer to this material as Natural Rubber. Each and every mattress we offer with latex content always discloses the source of this content.
The healthiest mattress for those wishing to eliminate chemicals within their sleep environment would be either a coil mattress quilted to certified raw materials like organic cotton and wool or a natural rubber mattress (Certified by Eco Institut from Germany) with organic cotton and wool. Many of the natural/organic mattresses The Mattress & Sleep Company features can be tailored to your individual comfort needs. Even our solid wood foundations are kiln dried with no chemicals or fire retardants. Our Ergonomic sleep systems by Green Sleep and Sleeptek combine pure natural rubber which has zero chemical off-gassing. Green Sleep and provides the best in proper spinal alignment when their mattresses are partnered with their ergonomic suspension bases. Feel free to contact us at any time via our contact form online or toll-free 877-750-1212.