Is your mat­tress green? It’s get­ting harder to tell

NO GOV­ERN­MEN­T­A­GENCY REG­U­LATES LA­BEL­ING AS ‘ OR­GANIC’ OR ‘ NAT­U­RAL’

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Julie Scelfo

While preg­nant with her fi rst child last year, Chau Ngo-Ray­man found her­self wor­ry­ing about chem­i­cals in the prod­ucts she was buy­ing. “ I got this ‘ how to raise your baby green’ book, and I guess it kind of freaked me out,” Ngo-Ray­man said. “ We tried to buy ev­ery­thing that was or­ganic. It kind of be­came an ob­ses­sion.”

The In­ter­net was full of tips on how to cook or­ganic food and where to buy or­ganic cot­ton clothes. When it came to buy­ing a crib mat­tress, how­ever, Ngo-Ray­man, a teacher , was lost.

In stores and on the Web, she found plenty of mat­tresses la­beled “ or­ganic,” “ nat­u­ral” or “ eco-friendly,” but lit­tle guid­ance about what ex­actly that meant, or what made any one of them bet­ter than — or even dif­fer­ent from — an­other, or from a con­ven­tional mat­tress. Vast dis­par­i­ties in pric­ing, from a lit­tle more than $ 100 to more than $ 500, only added to the con­fu­sion.

Even­tu­ally, Ngo-Ray­man set­tled on a mat­tress rec­om­mended by a friend, which had the word or­ganic in its name and cost about $ 200, only slightly more than a con­ven­tional one. But she is still not clear about what her son, Noah, now 8 months old, is sleep­ing on.

“ It’s defi nitely hard to tell,” Ngo-Ray­man said. “ I don’t even think ours is 100 per­cent or­ganic. I think the outer shell is.”

Stores across the coun­try have lately been trum­pet­ing the benefi ts of “ or­ganic” and “ nat­u­ral” mat­tresses, for adults as well as ba­bies. There are now mod­els made with soy­beans, stuffed with co­conut husks, in­fused with green tea and treated with aloe vera (“ known to have a sig­nifi cant ef­fect on en­ergy lev­els,” ac­cord­ing to a news release from Serta).

But as mat­tresses like th­ese have be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon — and an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar sub­ject of on­line dis­cus­sion fo­rums for par­ents — it has be­come ever harder for con­sumers to sort through the panoply of man­u­fac­tur­ers’ claims.

No gov­ern­ment agency reg­u­lates the la­bel­ing of mat­tresses as “ or­ganic” or “ nat­u­ral,” and trade groups like the In­ter­na­tional Sleep Prod­ucts As­so­ci­a­tion and the Spe­cialty Sleep As­so­ci­a­tion of­fer their mem­bers no guide­lines for us­ing the terms. Through­out the in­dus­try — as a num­ber of peo­ple within it ac­knowl­edged in in­ter­views — pro­mo­tional ma­te­ri­als are rife with vague or mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion. “ The whole thing is a smoke and mir­rors in­dus­try,” said Ralph Ross­deutscher, the pres­i­dent and owner of Natura World, a man­u­fac­turer in Cam­bridge, On­tario.

The ques­tion of what’s re­ally in a mat­tress is im­por­tant, at least as some peo­ple see it, be­cause, they be­lieve, any prod­uct made with syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als car­ries po­ten­tial health risks. “ You spend a third of your life in bed,” said De­bra Lynn Dadd, a Florida au­thor and blog­ger , who has been writ­ing about toxic sub­stances in house­hold prod­ucts for 25 years. “ If you are in­ter­ested in things like or­ganic food and nat­u­ral beauty prod­ucts,” she added, “ you should re­al­ize that you’re ac­tu­ally get­ting a greater ex­po­sure to toxic chem­i­cals in your bed than any­where else.”

Not every­one agrees with this propo­si­tion, even among those se­ri­ously con­cerned with the dan­gers of toxic chem­i­cals. Ar­lene Blum, a bio­phys­i­cal chemist and the di­rec­tor of the Green Sci­ence Pol­icy In­sti­tute, an en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group in Berke­ley, be­lieves the is­sue of or­ganic mat­tresses is noth­ing more than “ a mar­ket­ing ploy.”

“ The chem­i­cals in con­sumer prod­ucts are a huge prob­lem,” she said. “ Mat­tresses are one of the only things where it’s not a prob­lem.”

But as aware­ness of toxic chem­i­cals in or­di­nary prod­ucts has be­come wide­spread, many con­sumers have been drawn to ar­gu­ments like Dadd’s.

In re­cent decades, most mat­tresses have been made ei­ther with metal springs sand­wiched be­tween lay­ers of polyuretha­ne foam, or with just foam. In show­rooms, sales­peo­ple typ­i­cally fo­cus on fi rm­ness, talk­ing about the num­ber of springs or the den­sity of the foam. What they rarely bring up — but what has be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon knowl­edge among con­sumers — is that polyuretha­ne foam is made from petroleum, and that it can emit volatile or­ganic com­pounds ( VOCs), which have been linked to res­pi­ra­tory ir­ri­ta­tion and other health prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to both the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and the Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Sales­peo­ple are also un­likely to talk about the chem­i­cal makeup of fi re re­tar­dants, say green-minded ad­vo­cates. In the 1970s, when cigarettes were the main cause of mat­tress fires, polyuretha­ne foam was it­self seen as a re­tar­dant, be­cause cigarettes don’t make foam ig­nite. Open fl ame, on the other hand, does, and in later years, when can­dles and chil­dren play­ing with matches were the big­ger threats, man­u­fac­tur­ers be­gan treat­ing some foam with poly­bromi­nated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. This type of fi re re­tar­dant be­gan to worry en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and health ex­perts as sci­en­tists found them ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in places as di­verse as seal blub­ber in Green­land and the breast milk of U. S. women.

In 2004, af­ter an­i­mal stud­ies sug­gested that PBDEs im­paired de­vel­op­ment of the ner­vous and re­pro­duc­tive sys­tems, their man­u­fac­tur­ers vol­un­tar­ily stopped mak­ing them in the form that the Polyuretha­ne Foam As­so­ci­a­tion said was used in some mat­tresses. Most of the new fi re re­tar­dants in­tro­duced since then con­sist of syn­thetic fi bers that block fi re, and in many cases con­sumers have no way of know­ing what they con­tain be­cause the fi bers are pro­pri­etary and man­u­fac­tur­ers are not re­quired to dis­close their com­po­si­tion.

The ma­te­rial that cov­ers a mat­tress — its tick­ing — is an­other source of con­cern. Con­ven­tional mat­tresses for chil­dren are of­ten cov­ered in vinyl, which be­gins life as a hard plas­tic and is soft­ened us­ing ad­di­tional chem­i­cals, fre­quently ones called ph­tha­lates. But small amounts of ph­tha­lates have been found in hu­man tis­sue and have also been linked to health prob­lems. Last year Cal­i­for­nia be­came the fi rst state to ban the sale of mat­tresses with ph­tha­lates for use by chil­dren, in a law that be­came ef­fec­tive Jan. 1. On Feb. 10, a law passed by Congress in Au­gust would for­bid the use of three types of ph­tha­lates in prod­ucts for young chil­dren, in­clud­ing mat­tresses.

Even os­ten­si­bly nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents in a mat­tress’s fi ll or tick­ing are sus­pect, in the view of some ad­vo­cates. La­tex foam, made from the sap of rub­ber trees, is very ex­pen­sive in its 100 per­cent nat­u­ral form, and less durable than when blended with the syn­thetic ver­sion. The vast ma­jor­ity of la­tex mat­tresses on the mar­ket are in fact made from a blended prod­uct, said Kevin Stein, the spokesman for La­tex In­ter­na­tional, one of only three la­tex pro­duc­ers in the United States, and the syn­thetic ver­sion con­tains petroleum.

Only prod­ucts like cot­ton that has been cer­tifi ed or­ganic by the U. S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and some types of wool ( Cal­i­for­nian Pure Grow Wool), which hew to strin­gent stan­dards, pass muster with cru­saders like Dadd.

“ There’s so much wrong with con­ven­tional mat­tresses that you re­ally have to take a quan­tum leap and fi nd a nat­u­ral mat­tress,” she said, “ rather than a con­ven­tional mat­tress that’s bet­ter. Be­cause they’re not bet­ter enough.”

COUR­TESY OF KEETSA — NEW YORKTIMES

IKEA

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