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Memory Foam Mattresses: How Toxic Are They?

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A dream of mine for several years has been to get one of those really expensive, super luxuriously comfortable, memory foam mattresses. Ever since I layed down on my In-Law’s new bed a few years ago, and sank into what felt like heavenly, floating soft yet firm clouds, I decided I needed to have one of these amazing mattresses! I have been waiting until we could really justify the expense of a new mattress and new bedroom furniture. A recent 40th Birthday present allowed me to purchase the next best thing to the real deal complete mattress, a memory foam topper. Read More I’m sure most of you are familiar with ‘topper’s’. The Memory Foam Topper with a Cotton Pillow Top cover that I found at Target, was just what I was looking for.

It would help turn my traditional box spring mattress into hopefully what would feel like a memory foam mattress. I picked the most expensive one they had, figuring it had to be the best and most comfortable and excitedly head home to put it on the bed. I read the reviews online and other than comments about a curious smell that emits from the topper and takes several days to disappear, I thought this was going to finally give me my long awaited pillow soft comfort. Almost as good as the mattress itself!
Toxic Memory FoamWell, that’s not exactly what happened. Let’s see, where do I start? Do I start with the overwhelming chemical smell that came out as soon as we unrolled and unwrapped the foam from the packaging which seemed to penetrate the sheets, the bedding, the pillows and the entire room? Or, do I tell you how embarrassed I was that I never looked into the dangerous chemicals that go into making a memory foam mattress in the first place? Honestly though, I just couldn’t get over the smell. I knew that any smell coming from something you would soon be sleeping on for 8 hours, couldn’t be good. I also knew that it had to be the glue, the chemical sprays that are used as flame retardants, or the chemicals in the foam itself. It was at that moment that I realized, I hadn’t done my research and I was probably not going to like what I was about to find out. I put the pad on the bed anyway, and decided that I was going to over look the smell and make it work, because the thing was so darned comfortable and I had been looking forward to this for far too long. After all, the smell would go away in a few days just like all of the people had commented it would.

Being a researcher by nature, I was a little embarrassed that I purposefully chose not to educate myself further on the safety of memory foam mattresses. You know how you only learn what you want to when you want to and when you’re ready? Well, I wanted this mattress so badly, that I knew deep down inside If I delved too far into researching it, I would probably not buy one, therefore throwing my 2 year old dream of owning a memory foam mattress down the tubes. I, like most Tempurpedic or similar competitor’s owners have fallen and been sold for years by those relaxing, health oriented commercials. You know, the ones showing a loving couple laying on a Mattress on the top of a cliff, over looking the ocean, just gazing at each other with blissful expressions. Ah, such a serene, healthy, natural association I always had with memory foam. After all, this was originally developed and used by NASA for the Astronauts. It had to be safe! Naively, I just never thought to question the safety of memory foam mattresses, nor, quite truthfully, had I really given it much thought before. After all, I’m sure safety and health would have been a major issue before allowing people to sleep on these mattresses, right? Manufacturers wouldn’t knowingly produce products that could be toxic and hazardous to consumer’s, would they? Surely the government would test the safety before allowing products such as these to be used by people, right?
Toxic Memory Foam Mattresses: Continued
Not right. After 2 days of breathing in a horrid smell, only similar to formaldehyde (because, as I later learned, it was formaldehyde) I decided to disappoint my husband and kids and return the mattress topper. My husband jokingly said he didn’t care about the chemicals or toxicity because it was the most comfortable thing he had ever slept on. My kids didn’t want to get out of the bed either, even though my daughter did comment on the horrible smell. I wheeled the un-rolled mattress topper back into Target, and without skipping a beat, the manager in ‘returns’ said to me, “You couldn’t deal with the smell right? Super comfortable but a terrible smell. I know, we had one too.” And with that, my dreams of owning memory foam were shown on my receipt as a credit back to my account. I started thinking of what my alternative options were. Just what was in memory foam and what exactly was that smell anyway? Were millions of people sleeping on toxic mattresses just like I was about to? What would I tell my parents (both sets) and my In-Laws, who all sleep on memory foam mattresses? I had a lot of research to do and as I soon found out, I was not going to like what I was about to learn. Caution: You too, may not like what you are about to read and none of what I am reporting is meant to scare you, however it is meant to educate you and allow you to consider how important what we do spend 8 hours a night on, is. Remember too, that our entire body is in contact with pillows and mattresses at night. Our skin, our breath, our nose. I would love to hear from you after reading this article below.

What Is Memory Foam?

  • Polyurethane is synthetic and is made from petroleum products. Therefore, its production furthers our dependency on fossil fuel resources. The production of synthetics from petroleum products is energy-intensive and often generates toxic waste byproducts.
  • Polyurethane foam is not biodegradable, and it ends up in the landfill for a very long time.
  • The chemicals in new polyurethane foam outgas into the air. These toxic chemicals are called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and you can often smell them until they dissipate. Most of the VOCs from polyurethane foam dissipate in several weeks to several months, depending on many variables, such as the types and amounts of synthetic materials; amount of fresh-air exchange in the room; temperature and humidity; and breathability of bedding materials like comforters and bedspreads.
  • All mattresses made with synthetic foams, batting, or fabrics must be treated with flame-retarding chemicals so that they meet the federal open-flame flammability test. Whether a mattress is made with standard polyurethane foam, memory foam, recycled polyurethane foam, Dacron, or even a combination of soy-based and polyurethane foams, there’s no getting around the problem of flame retardants. Although bioaccumulative PBDEs, the most toxic flame-retardant chemicals, have been voluntarily discontinued by U.S. mattress manufacturers, the alternatives are only somewhat less toxic, and not considered acceptable by the German field of Bau-Biologie. (The measurable Bau-Biologie standards for health are perhaps the most stringent in the world.)
  • Flame-retardant chemicals in mattresses that contain any amount of polyurethane foam are called organophosphate chemicals. Unlike VOCs, these chemicals do not become gases, are not easily detectable by smell, and levels may increase over time as the materials age. Even though the levels are chronically low, since your body and face are on the mattress for a third of your life (during your most sensitive regenerative time), it might be best to consider a chemical-free alternative.
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One thought on “Memory Foam Mattresses: How Toxic Are They?

  1. I have struggled forever to find the right pillow. I thought I finally found it in a memory foam pillow with cool gel top I bought at Sam’s Club. I was so wrong. The smell was bad, but faded (mostly) after a week or two. There was something worse happening though,. Over the next 2 months, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, more and more, coughing and wheezing. It got worse and worse until one night I found myself sitting up struggling to even take a breathe. I thought at first it was allergies and had started keeping my inhaler next to my bed, but after that night I realized this was not right becasue I was fine during the day. Finally dawned on me everything started with that pillow! Got rid of it and sleeping fine now.
    While I miss it’s comfort, it truly frightens me to now read what I was breathing in and the huge effect it had on my health. Even if people don’t feel the effects….they are still breathing this toxic stuff in!!!

  2. Very informative information. Answered all my questions about why my new, comfortable — but horribly smelly — recliner stinks so bad I cannot be in the same room with it for very long. The night we brought it home and unpacked it, immediately the living room filled with a chemical smell. By 4 a.m., I was ready to heave that chair out the patio door. It’s now been two weeks since bringing it home and with the patio door open all the time, I can stand the smell. I wish the salesperson had informed me regarding the downside of the memory foam upgrade before purchase. I also wish they would have unpacked the chair in their warehouse for the week it was there so some of the outgassing could have taken place on their premises. Maybe by the end of summer, I will be able to enjoy the chair as much as I had hoped. Right now, it’s disgusting.

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