Night Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Mattress Bite
Buying a bed for your kids shouldn’t give you nightmares.
Birds they will sing, dilly dilly,
Lambs they will play.
Keep you and I, dilly dilly,
Out of harm’s way.
I sing Mini Ewe her favourite lullaby, “Lavender Blue,” by the night-light’s warm glow. Her eyes get heavy, her breathing becomes rhythmic, and her head rests heavy on my shoulder. She’s finally asleep, and I ready myself to lay her in the crib. This should be a peaceful time — but all I can think about is what’s in her mattress.
At 2 years old, she’s ready for me to start shopping for her “big kid bed.” Many parents would be scanning Pinterest for images of cute Montessori-style floor beds with fox-shaped pillows, and macrame wall hangings. Instead, I’m Googling “toxicity of polyurethane foam” and “neurological effects of flame retardants.” Modern parenting is intense.
There are many fancy, organic mattresses for kids on the market, but our bank account is decidedly not fancy these days. So I need to know: Is dishing out the extra dough worth it?
Heather Stapleton — environmental chemist, exposure scientist, and associate professor at Duke University — says yes: natural, organic bedding is absolutely worth it. She told me her own daughter sleeps on an organic cotton mattress. Considering Stapleton has spent the better part of her career researching how humans and ecosystems are affected by the flame retardants frequently used to reduce the flammability of household furnishings, that’s a pretty loud wake-up call for me.
I’d really like to experience these peaceful bedtime moments without panic — so I decided to get to the bottom of what our kids might be sleeping on.
Flame Retardants, VOCs, Foams, Oh My!
Because we don’t live in a felted yurt without electronics or conventional furniture, our home is already coated in flame retardants. And even if my flock did live in a woolly haven, we might end up ingesting them anyway; humans are primarily exposed to toxins through household dust, but it’s estimated that 20% of the flame retardants in our bodies come from our food. Considering some flame retardants have been linked to endocrine damage, infertility, neurological deficits, immune-system compromise, and cancer, I’m not resting easy thinking of these things in our lives — especially for the still-growing brains and bodies of my kids.
Flame retardants have been widely used since the 1970s, when many people smoked, few homes had smoke detectors, and highly combustible stuff like polyurethane was de rigueur in household furniture. But the science is telling us the cure may be worse than the disease — or rather, the cure is the cause of other diseases.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, get a lot of air time (I made a chemistry pun about volatility!) for good reason — they’re highly bioaccumulative, and are possibly carcinogenic and neurotoxic as well. The law is rarely if ever in lock-step with research, but some advances have been made. Happily, use of PBDEs has been significantly restricted by the European Union and Canada in recent years. California has restricted flame retardants in the manufacture of juvenile sleep surfaces, and is joined by several other American states in doing so.
Beside PBDEs, there are hundreds of other potentially harmful flame retardants that hide in our products, from sofas to children’s sleepwear. Crib mattresses and car seats can be especially suspect. According to the experts I consulted, there is currently no legislation in North America requiring manufacturers to tell you if their products have been treated with flame retardants, or with which ones.
“Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure is to take a piece of that mattress and have it analyzed,” Stapleton says. Her lab offers this service to concerned parents and consumers, but these services don’t appear to be widespread across North America.
While flame retardants dominate the discussions of household toxins, looking at what mattresses are made of is also making me toss and turn. Stapleton says, “There hasn’t been a lot of information characterizing products that have these chemicals versus how much people are exposed to; it’s kind of a big black box.” For that reason, she emphasizes that what is “concerning” in mattresses is subjective, but still maintains that, beside flame retardants (her main concern), we should also be looking at things like polyurethane foam.
Anyone who’s ordered one of those trendy online mattresses like Endy or Leesa knows “the smell” after unrolling them. Foams like polyurethane and synthetic latexes off-gas through their life-cycle. While much of this occurs when new, they may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for years after purchase. These can wreak havoc on human health, especially when those humans are tiny: formaldehyde, for example, has been linked to respiratory issues and cancer.
Stapleton says that if you do buy these products, airing them outside for a week will facilitate some off-gassing. But even then, the long-term effects of VOCs on health have still not been definitively studied. (Chem 101: flame retardants will not off-gas in this way, as they are only semi-volatile.)
Beyond Human Health Concerns
The debate around mattresses often homes in on their human impacts, but of course, we’re part of an ecosystem — what goes inside ends up outside. This is a primary concern for environmental chemist Miriam Diamond, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto. “The tendency over the past decades has become focused on humans,” she says, referencing the debate over flame retardants, “but it is not all about us. We live in an environment — one that needs to be kept clean and vibrant.”
A 2017 report published by the Green Science Policy Institute at UC Berkeley states: “Research has shown that the adverse environmental and health impacts of flame retardants used to meet flammability regulations can outweigh potential fire safety benefits.” Flame retardants can accumulate not only in our bodies, but in our water systems, soil, fish, and wildlife, often far from the places they’re produced or used.
It’s difficult to summarize the environmental effects of such a large category of chemical, but flame retardants have been linked to such diverse harms as the toxification of waterways and the deteriorating health of polar bears. And of course, all the human effects of flame retardants I’ve mentioned above would also be seen in wildlife.
Canada has placed restrictions on PBDEs on account of their environmental toxicity, though there are so many other flame retardants, such as TDCPP (also known as Tris), that could meet the same criteria. Foams and vinyls are often derived from petrochemicals (unless it’s specifically stated that they are bio-sourced), so that adds an additional complex environmental aspect.
Diamond maintains these conversations must be framed by equity as well: “Some people on low incomes don’t have a choice for what to buy. Items such as an infant mattress could be passed down between generations. As a Canadian, I want to know that every Canadian is being protected, not just the ones who can afford it.” And, she noted, we also need to protect those who are downstream (sometimes literally) of our manufacturing plants and urban centres, especially as they are not the ones producing the toxins they live with.
So… Do We Just Sleep on Yak Fur?
Because I still don’t live in a yurt, I called Christian Schmidt, owner of Calgary’s Black Sheep Mattress Company — no relation, but obviously they’re my people! Black Sheep makes their products with organic cotton, natural latex, and wool. They don’t have to treat with chemicals to meet Canadian flammability standards, as wool is naturally flame-resistant.
When asked why they’ve chosen these materials, Schmidt says, “What always resonates with me is the precautionary principle. If we don’t think we need some new chemical or material, then why are we using it? Can we do without it? Especially if we don’t know the long-term effects.”
Black Sheep ships across Canada, but if you’re located elsewhere, a quick Google will turn up dozens of beds that look like they were made out of organic clouds by vegan angels. If you’re wanting to play it super-green, stick to materials like natural latex, cotton, and wool (at least if you’re not one of the vegan angels). You can look for certifications like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and GOLS (Latex) which regulate their respective components. There’s also the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 and Greenguard, both of which monitor levels of VOCs, though are still limited in scope.
While certifications are a step in the right direction, they are still far from offering a green guarantee, and can be inaccessible to smaller businesses. Schmidt, for example, has looked into the organic textile and latex certifications for his line — as he’s fairly certain they’d meet the standards — but cost and time are limiting factors.
A box-store option is IKEA’s Mausund line, which is made with natural and synthetic latex, organic cotton, rayon, and wool. Kristin Newbigging, the Public Relations Manager for IKEA Canada, was quite open with me when I asked annoying questions. She confirmed the line is indeed flame-retardant-free, with many textiles made from sustainable sources, and 50% from renewable sources. Duke professor Stapleton says the corporation has been responsive to health and environmental concerns, potentially because their headquarters are in Europe. A twin Mausund will run you $699 CAD, but a Black Sheep twin is just $70 more (and without synthetics!).
It’s great that there are options — but I’m feeling pretty weary, to be honest. Because this isn’t just about the “best mattress.” It’s about environmental devastation and our desire to protect our children from the world we’ve created — it’s about eco-anxiety. I’m definitely starting a buy-Mini-Ewe-a-non-death-soaked-mattress savings plan, but I recognize that another part of my weariness is lamenting that access to toxin-free products shouldn’t be based on how much money you have.
Even after all her years of researching some of the most environmentally harmful chemicals out there, Miriam Diamond says something that brings me back to the present moment. Yes, I’ll scrimp and save to buy a natural mattress, but thanks to Diamond, I’m also remembering that “the most important thing we can do for our kids is love them.”
The night-light’s glow suddenly seems a bit warmer, and I decide to sit for a while with Mini Ewe in my arms before laying her down.
Lavender’s green, dilly dilly,
Yes you love me, dilly dilly,
And I love you.