The Truth About Chemicals

This is a very in depth article of some 4,000 words. If you’d like to read specific sections, there are links here to jump to an area of interest. This article uses the term "mattress" a lot, however this product is easily interchangeable with bedding, sofas and clothing. Really, any textile item. The general theme is very much the same across all textile goods.

Today’s consumer is conducting far more research than ever before. The increased demand for safe/natural/healthy products has shaped many different industries. When performing this research it is often difficult to separate accurate information from misinformation. Our goal with this article is to not only shine a light on this issue but to explain why we specialize in and focus on offering natural home goods.

The Mattress & Sleep Company have sold natural mattresses and bedding ever since we started in 2006. Our sales volume in natural bedroom products is among the highest in Canada. We believe we have a responsibility to promote natural home furnishings accurately, and for the right reasons.

While we are of the opinion that in modern society we are very likely overexposed to potentially dangerous chemicals, this issue is easily blown out of proportion. Many individuals and organizations claim standard mattresses are so toxic that people are often buying natural simply out of fear that they are going to get sick from sleeping on a normal mattress.

Although it is true that certain individuals are more sensitive to specific chemicals than others might be, and we absolutely believe this to be a genuine concern — this article is intended for the concerned and educated consumer who is trying to make sense of the issues surrounding chemicals in mattresses and furniture. This approach is a balanced perspective for general education. Those with multiple chemical sensitivities or similar conditions should of course lean heavier on qualified health practitioners for advice.

Before we jump into mattresses in particular it is very important that this article is read with the following facts taken into consideration:

  1. Everything is a chemical. Marketing a product as being 'chemical-free', in a scientific sense, means that it does not even exist. We are made of chemicals; everything in nature is a chemical. Water is a chemical (two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom).
  2. Everything has a chemical name. Many popular blogs are re-circulating the idea that if you cannot pronounce something to avoid it; the chemical name of water is dihydrogen-monoxide.
  3. Toxicity of any specific chemical is dosage based. It is the dose of any substance that determines the toxicity. So while it is true that a toxic dose of say cyanide is a small amount compared to say a toxic dose of water, the dosage or the amount of exposure to any chemical is what determines the safety or danger involved. More Information
  4. Everything off-gases. It is the constituents of these materials that determine the off-gassing, and it is of course the amount of these chemicals that determines whether the off-gassing is potentially harmful.
  5. Odours are caused by off-gassing of chemicals that our noses can detect. There are many naturally occurring materials which produce an offensive odour, no different than many synthetic materials. The smell of a chemical is not related to the danger of that chemical, some very dangerous chemicals are also odourless to humans.
  6. The term's 'natural' and 'organic' with respect to marketing are misleading. In the strictest scientific sense of the word, organic chemistry involves all chemicals containing carbon; this technically includes chemicals refined from crude oil. Crude oil is made of dead organisms and all life on the planet is carbon based. We do feel there are specific reasons where the terms 'natural' or 'synthetic' certainly have a place and can be used in non-misleading terms, we will get into this later.
  7. There are legitimate performance reasons for choosing a mattress made of natural materials. These reasons are scientifically sound in principle. Once we change the focus from fear-mongering to function and a better sleep at night, the reasons for buying a mattress made from natural materials becomes more compelling, even for those that simply are not worried about exposure to specific chemicals.
  8. It is scientifically false to make a marketing claim of 'VOC Free'. There is no such thing as 100% accurate and precise measurement for the existence of all VOC's. These tests are typically performed by labs which will report on the VOC content in the PPM (parts per million) or PPB (parts per billion). The detection limits of a material may be for instance 200PPM, which means if the VOC in question exists in less than this amount, the machine cannot detect it accurately. This would be listed as 'below detection limit'; which is quite different from saying there is nothing present at all.

What are VOC’s and are they a cause for Concern?

VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) and VVOC’s (very volatile organic compounds) are chemicals that typically have very low boiling points and tend to evaporate into the air much more easily than other organic compounds. For example formaldehyde typically has a very low boiling point of -19 degrees centigrade. This creates vapour pressure in the finished product, resulting in the formaldehyde readily evaporating into the air.

There is legitimate cause for concern on the endemic use of many chemicals. One of the most common VOC’s used in a variety of consumer goods is formaldehyde. It is used in the production of many paints, adhesives, polyurethane foams and also sometimes used as a fire retardant for textile goods including mattresses and sofas.

Formaldehyde toxicity is something that has been thoroughly studied and well understood. Formaldehyde is also found in many things in nature including foods such as apples. We even produce formaldehyde in our own bodies. For this reason, we also have the ability to remove excess amounts of formaldehyde from our body, yet only so quickly. Again it is the dosage which determines the toxicity. Thus, while small amounts of formaldehyde — amounts similar to what is naturally present in our own bodies are harmless; and while there are some regulations to avoid the overuse of this chemical — it is not hard to picture the following scenario:

A family has moved into a new home. There is fresh paint, new carpet, new carpet underlay, MDF kitchen cabinet interiors, baseboards and trim, a new chair in the corner, and a new mattress. These are all emitting some formaldehyde. In a relatively enclosed space like a bedroom, the concentration of this chemical is perhaps in a higher dosage than it would be outdoors. In this scenario, the formaldehyde may pose a health risk. Again, the cause for concern really pertains not to the use of any specific chemicals — it is the endemic use of certain chemicals that can produce harmful effects if we are overexposed.

Particulates in the air — another concern?

Imagine we're in the same home as mentioned above, yet it is now 15 years later. The various culprits have off-gassed a great deal of formaldehyde and many other chemical compounds. After enough time, the risk of exposure is perhaps no longer a factor.

However, the genuine concern with really old materials is that over time, micro particles of the offending materials can accumulate in living spaces which may not always be kept clean. Areas such as our carpets or HVAC system are excellent examples of where these micro particles tend to accumulate. Inhaling any particulates can be dangerous to our lungs. This is not a problem exclusive to synthesized chemicals. The size of any particle can determine how much damage it can do to your lungs. For instance, wood dust can be very dangerous to inhale.

For crawling toddlers and for pets, these airborne particulates are a potential cause for concern. These are genuine indoor air quality issues we should all be cognizant of and act upon accordingly.

For those that are concerned about the general indoor air quality of their home, frequent replacement of furnace filters is very important. Regular cleaning and removal of dust is also largely beneficial, as well as regular laundering of bedding and other fabrics in the home that can accumulate dust. For those that want to take things a step further a high quality air purifier with medical grade HEPA filters (to remove particulates) and activated carbon charcoal filters (to react and store VOC’s and VVOC’s) can make a significant improvement in the air quality of a home.

Organic Certificates vs. Safety Certificates:

The chemical content of anything you bring into your home is what ultimately determines the safety of that item. As we have discussed above, there are some legitimate concerns over the use of chemicals in mattresses given how much in a day we spend sleeping. Many of our customers visit us specifically seeking out 'organic' mattresses. This is wonderful as an organic mattress likely offers the cleanest possible choice, and generally speaking organic mattresses are high performance, durable choices.

What is an organic mattress? By far the most common would be made of the only 100% naturally sourced foam natural rubber, and then wrapped in organic cotton and wool quilted covers. Wool is naturally fire retardant and can pass not only the simple cigarette burn test we have in Canada for upholstered furniture but the more intense open flame test required in the State of California 16 CFR 1633 regulation. There are a host of ways to pass fire safety codes for upholstered furniture, yet our research shows that the best method uses quilted natural wool fibres for meeting 16 CFR 1633 requirements without the use of synthetic chemical flame retardants.

The most credible certificates available for the mattress industry are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard). GOTS certification is typically for the cotton and wool used in the outer quilting of the mattresses and GOLS certification for the natural latex foam used inside the mattress.

Organic certification in large part has to do with traceability of the raw materials, restrictions in terms of agricultural practices and also to some extent social obligation to the workers. In terms of chemical content organic certificates vary greatly; we encourage some reading on these links to see what we mean about the vagueness of these certificates.

GOTS Standard

GOLS Standard

A large part of these organic certificates is that they deal with traceability to ensure production along the entire chain to the finished product is meeting certain criteria. The criteria, although generally being robust is also arbitrary due to the definition of the word organic really being rather ambiguous. This means that there is often a need to have multiple processors and manufacturers apply and pay money for certification in order to legally be able to use a specific organic certificate in the marketing of the product.

For instance, if the growers of a GOTS certified organic cotton have a certificate, and the weavers of the fabric have a GOTS certificate but the mattress factory that produces the finished product does not, then technically we as a retailer are not allowed to use the label on our website. There is a certain cost associated with these steps. Given that there is no lab testing (for synthetic chemicals) being done along each step of the way, it is difficult to say whether the cost of these certificates is worthwhile.

The consumer ends up paying for all of these certificates and we are mindful of this when it comes to the selection of products offered in our stores. If we feel a step in the process would pass on a burdensome markup to our customer, we opt to skip that step.

It is critical to understand that GOTS and GOLS do not actually certify a raw material as organic. It wouldn’t be appropriate to refer to cotton as "GOTS certified organic cotton" as this is not possible. You would need an organization such as the USDA to issue a certificate for organic.

The links here show which synthetic chemicals are permissible in organic production. Yes, synthetic chemicals are found in organic raw materials. We do believe the USDA criterion is excellent, we merely wish to counter the common belief that "organic is free of synthetics" – this is simply not true.

Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production

Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production

Simply put, an organic mattress, sofa or bedding item with certification from the agricultural level to finished product will have a (sometimes rather significant) cost premium over what could in theory be an identically created product with identical raw materials, which does not have any organic certificates.

There are also simple real-world costs to using appropriate raw materials. For example, natural rubber foam is more expensive than polyurethane foams. Natural rubber is far higher density than polyurethane.

Natural rubber also has potential drawbacks. Because natural rubber is such high density, a typical adult sleeper would require a reasonably thick natural rubber mattress to provide adequate comfort. While 6" natural latex mattresses exist, most sleepers of 150 lbs or more will find they require an 8" or 10" latex mattress to be truly happy sleeping on this material long term.

We find many of our customers are perhaps looking for a more reasonably priced alternative to organic. A certified safe mattress is the very solution to this. There are a small group of credible organizations who perform thorough chemical analysis of materials for safety purposes.

eco-INSTITUT in Germany is one such example. They are a polymer specialist who offers a test for natural rubber latex foams. They are positioned to check the validity of 100% natural claims, and they are also able to test for literally hundreds of different VOC’s and VVOC’s to measure the levels of these chemicals.

eco-INSTITUT Mattress & Bedding Testing

Oeko-Tex in Switzerland is another reputable organization in this arena. Oeko-Tex looks at a variety of factors for any material and then uses a class-based system to provide a general understanding of the safety of a specific material. The four classes are as follows:

  • Product class I:
    • Textile items for babies and toddlers up to 3 years (clothing, toys, bed linen, terry cloth items etc.)
  • Product class II:
    • Textiles used close to the skin (underwear, bed linen, T-shirts etc.)
  • Product class III:
    • Textiles used away from the skin (jackets, coats etc.)
  • Product class IV:
    • Furnishing materials (curtains, table cloths, upholstery materials etc.)

The system is entirely usage based. If a textile is not intended to be placed in the mouth of a baby, then that material will not be reviewed under Class 1. This is important as a Class 1 certified material is not necessarily "safer" than a Class 4 material.

Oeko-Tex Testing Limits

Finally, Cradle to Cradle certification is perhaps most thorough. C2C have an extensive qualifications list which looks at every aspect of producing a finished product from primary industry, treatment of the workers, social impact, chemical analysis, sustainability and end of life disposal.

Cradle to Cradle testing is stringent. The Vita Talalay Latex found in our Berkeley Ergonomics range of mattresses has obtained C2C Gold certification. Platinum is the highest level, and to date, there have not been any furniture or mattress products capable of obtaining platinum. To date, the only platinum certified product is a poplar siding for the exterior of homes.

C2C Material Health Certificate

From a strictly scientific viewpoint, a safety certificate carries more weight than an organic certificate.

However, we do not wish to imply in any way that certified organic mattresses are unsafe. Most organic mattresses also typically have chemical testing done by one or more of the organizations listed above. Our goal is only to point out that there is a difference between an organic certificate and a safety certificate. For example, it is currently possible to buy organic tobacco; this is obviously not advisable for many reasons. Organic tobacco smoke still contains a laundry list of many carcinogens and it is understood that smoking is not good for our health.

A certified safe mattress would be any mattress that is made using only components that have been tested by one or more of the above testing bodies, a perfect example of which is our Berkeley Ergonomics mattresses which are priced very well for their given quality

Cost of Organic Certifications, Where Does the Buck Stop?

We are big advocates of 3rd party certification in the interest of promoting a more transparent retail market for consumers. A market where companies can get called out for making false claims, or can be rewarded for proving that they do indeed produce high quality products with high safety and performance standards. Ultimately, there is a cost associated with being able to ‘prove’ these claims to customers and the end customer is always the person that is ultimately paying for these certifications.

Peace of mind does bring a certain cost with it, but how far do we need to go with this to place our trust in a company or their products? To our knowledge there are three North American mattress manufacturers that have organic certification for their factories. These are costly certificates for a small scale manufacturer to pay for and the cost is reflected in the finished product. These products are still packaged and shipped in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. These materials contain many different VOC’s and VVOC’s.

The Mattress & Sleep Company have always tried our best to not only offer the highest quality products yet also products that represent excellent value-for-money.

Appropriate Use of High Performance Natural Materials – For a Better Nights Rest

Sleep is a critical biological function and getting enough sleep is ultimately very important to our optimal day to day function. And just like sitting at a desk for 8+ hours or being on your feet for 8+ hours during the day requires a proper chair or pair of shoes for proper support; the mattress we use for so long is also critical for managing day to day stress and discomfort that we cause our bodies.

Correct support to maintain proper posture is ultimately determined by the elasticity of the materials used in a mattress. Elasticity is the ability of a material to deform under physical stress and to return to its original shape when the stress is removed. Highly elastic materials like steel springs make for good support if properly designed. With regards to upholstery foams, which are used in virtually all mattresses available in the market place, high quality natural latex foams are significantly more elastic than standard polyurethane foams made from refined crude oil.

Natural rubber behaves much more like springs than foam, in the sense that it provides a highly elastic response which is much better at supporting the human body properly. This elasticity and higher density of natural rubber also contribute to a significantly longer life span than that of standard polyurethane foams. Latex foam usage predates organic certificates by many decades. This material has always been fully understood for its desirable performance characteristics.

Humidity and temperature control is critical in helping fall asleep faster and also to stay asleep for longer. The average person loses approximately 500 ml of moisture every night they sleep. Synthetic fabrics like polyester, which is predominantly used in standard mattresses is limited in breathability and will only absorb about 1% of its weight in humidity before it feels damp to the touch. Any additional moisture absorbed after the initial 1% is stored on the outside of the fibres, creating the clammy uncomfortable feel which ultimately keeps many of us awake. Polyurethane foams used in the upholstery layers of a mattress are also limited in breathability and do not allow this stored humidity to evaporate quickly into the environment.

Cotton stretch fabrics provide breathability and comfort compared to synthetic fabrics. Cotton is able to absorb up to 8% of its weight in humidity before it feels damp to the touch.

Sheep’s wool is not only more breathable than most synthetic fibres but it also has a unique ability to absorb up to 35% of its weight in humidity before it feels damp to the touch. This is why even though wool is a great insulator it actually prevents overheating at night. Sheep’s wool is scientifically proven to help lower and steady the heart rate and allow us to actually sleep better.

When sheep’s wool is quilted to or layered beneath cotton, this combination of moisture wicking performance is virtually unmatched by any other approach.

Natural latex foams also breathe significantly better than standard polyurethane foams. This provides much better circulation of air in the mattress, which allows high humidity air to be expelled efficiently. This not only contributes to a better nights sleep, a dry environment also prevents the growth of bacteria, dust mites, mould and mildew.

A durable mattress is only desirable if it is also hygienic. These high performance natural materials provide a healthy environment for the life of the mattress.

On a closing note, while we as a species have accomplished incredible things with the use of chemistry and producing advanced synthetic materials, there are many things found in nature that we have yet to surpass. While it is true that we can synthesize chemicals found in nature in a lab setting; evolution has developed many unique macro and micro materials that we can only find in nature which we cannot duplicate in a lab. These characteristics provide unique benefits:

  • Modern sport fabrics can be made just as breathable as natural fabrics. However, these fabrics lack the ability to store humidity the way that natural fabrics do, and in the bedroom the lack of air flow as opposed to being outdoors jogging is of huge concern. This is why 'high-tech' fabrics really should not be used in mattresses and bed linens. The one exception to this is regenerated cellulose fabrics like Viscose/Modal/Tencel which do achieve a high absorption being made completely of cellulose which is the main chemical found in cotton.
  • The lightest most insulating solid material in the world is aerogel. It is now even being used in super light weight jackets as a replacement for goose down. The trouble with the jackets so far is that they do not breathe the way that goose down does and are prone to overheating.
  • Polyisoprene from a rubber tree is still more elastic than other synthetic polymers not inspired by nature. A great example is in latex foam. Natural latex foam is far more elastic than synthetic latex, which is crafted from styrene and butadiene, synthetic petrochemicals.
  • Horsetail is tougher, more resilient and elastic than any synthetic textile fibre while still maintaining an ability to breathe which promotes a healthy bed climate.

These are just a few examples, but in textile materials there really is an extensive list of uses for natural materials that are still unsurpassed by man-made efforts, most of which are in the application of personal comfort.