Is your mattress green? It’s getting harder to tell
NO GOVERNMENTAGENCY REGULATES LABELING AS ‘ ORGANIC’ OR ‘ NATURAL’
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