“Flame retardant” is a term that you will see a lot while you are shopping for a mattress. It refers to a layer of chemicals or natural materials that are used to ensure that the mattress meets flammability standards. There is a lot of controversy over the term because the traditional chemicals that are commonly used are very toxic, which is bad news for you and the environment.
The first thing that you need to know is that it is not illegal for a mattress to not have a chemical-laden flame retardant. Some will tell you that this is a requirement, but it’s not. So, if you have had a salesperson at a furniture store tell you it is just to try to sell you a mattress, you need to shop elsewhere. The mattress does have to pass flammability test, but it is up to the manufacturer whether this will be done using chemicals or natural methods.
Common Chemicals Used on Mattresses
Most people do not know that all fire retardants are not the same. Some believe that fire retardant is a product, but it is actually a title given to a number of products that are used to slow the burn rate in furniture. Sort of like how the word “lightbulb” is used for all lightbulbs, even if they are very different.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were the earliest flame retardants used. After studies proved how dangerous they were and how fast they accumulated in the environment, they were banned in the United Sates in 1977. Brominated flame retardants became popular, but several varieties were banned in Europe. It was not until 2012 that many companies began seeking alternatives. Below are some of the more common chemicals that comprise fire retardants used on mattresses today.
This is a water soluble chemical, which means that it can easily absorb into your skin while you are sleeping. Considering boric acid is primarily used as a roach killer. It is probably not something you want to be sleeping on all night. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states that the minimal lethal dose is only 2 grams in children and 15 grams in adults.
Long-term exposure to boric acid is suggested to cause kidney damage. In animal testing, extended contact caused skeletal variations, cardiovascular defects, mild kidney lesions, and impaired fertility.
Although not as water soluble as boric acid, wetting can still cause this chemical to rise to the surface of the mattress. It is also able to become airborne with mattress use. It is labeled toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Inhalation of antimony trioxide is associated with chronic intestinal inflammation, pulmonary toxicity, respiratory irritation, and pneumoconiosis. It is believed to be carcinogenic and exposure to high levels can lead to Adam-Stokes syndrome.
Generally referred to as Deca, this fire retardant is very similar to the banned PDBE that was previously mentioned. It is also not as water soluble as boric acid, but sweat, saliva, urine, and water spills will wick it to the surface. When exposure was tested in birds, cows, fish, and rats, metabolic debromination occurred. It has been found in breast milk, blood samples, and waste water. In humans, studies show it is associated with liver tumors, decreased thyroid functions, reproduction and developmental problems, and neurological effects.
Deca is banned in Maine and Washington, and there are restrictions in a few additional states, including Illinois, California, Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Montana.
If the word “melamine” looks really familiar to you for some reason perhaps you remember the pet food scandal when dogs were dying in the United States after eating pet food made in China that was tainted with it.
Melamine is extremely water soluble. It can be brought to the surface of the mattress very easily and absorbed by the skin. The United States Food and Drug Administration found that when absorbed into the bloodstream it interacts with urine-filled renal tubules, causing them to crystalize, damage cells, and cause kidney malfunction. It can also lead to reproductive damage and bladder cancer.
This is a less common fire retardant used on mattresses and can also be brought to the surface through wetting. Adverse effects of extended exposure are primarily related to the central nervous system, and include symptoms of convulsions, sedation, inebriation, spasms, and unconsciousness. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has also declared it a potential carcinogen.
Shocking Facts About Flame Retardants
- It is estimated that approximately 90 percent of Americans have flame retardant chemicals in their body.
- Flame retardant chemicals can accumulate in breast milk.
- Products treated with flame retardant produce more toxic smoke and higher levels of carbon monoxide than those not treated when they burn.
- Certain fire retardants have been banned from children’s pajamas, but they are still used in mattresses.
- Flame retardant furniture increases escape time by 15-fold, which could be less than one minute.
- In the 1970s it was Big Tobacco that pushed the use of flame retardant chemicals because they were dealing with so much heat over cigarettes causing fire in bed.
You have probably been told that all mattresses purchased in the United States must have a fire retardant product added to it. The truth is that federal law requires mattresses sold within the country to pass the 16CFR Part 1633 test. This requires a manufacturer to put three identical mattresses to the test in a legitimate fire laboratory. During this test a large flame gets held to the mattress for a specific amount of time. When the flame gets removed measurements are taken of the heat release and peak heat release. The heat release on all three mattresses has to be under a certain number for the mattress to pass.
Wool is being used in abundance for this purpose now because its innate properties are naturally fire retardant. Wool can hold as much as 30 percent of its total weight in moisture, which means that a significantly higher temperature is required to ignite. It burns very slow, smoldering and charring. This gives off minimal heat.
Wool’s structure is very unique. Microscopic scales that look a lot like pinecones cover every fiber. These scales rub against one another and get tangled. This ultimately holds the wood together and this unique composition is what makes it so resistant to burning. Since fibers are crammed together and entwined an environment is created with very little oxygen.Wool is a breathable fabric, which keeps you cooler when you sleep. However, it does offer a firmer sleeping surface than what you may be used to, so just keep that in mind.
Latex is another popular option. Natural latex mattresses are created from the sap of a rubber tree. Don’t assume that just because a mattress is latex that it is free of fire retardants. There are synthetic latex mattresses available, as well as blends, so it is important that you fully read the label of the exact mattress you intend on buying.
Inherent rayon is a fiber that is also becoming increasingly popular because it can pass flammability tests successfully and it has a low cost to manufacture. High quality wool on average costs $15 per linear yard, but inherent rayon costs about $2 for the same amount.
It should be noted that inherent rayon is not 100 percent natural like some will have you believe. Chemically altered purified cellulose is involved in the production process. Rayon is essentially regenerated cellulose fiber that has been bonded to silica. So, it is not entirely eco-friendly or natural, but it is free of carcinogenic chemicals.
As the mattress industry constantly evolves and becomes more sophisticated one can only expect the future to bring even more options. If you look back to a decade ago, you see how far the industry has already come. Years ago, nearly everyone purchased mattresses saturated in toxic chemicals, but today consumers demand safe alternatives, and there are already an abundance of options in a variety of styles and price ranges to accommodate anyone’s budget and preference.
Joe Auer is the editor of Mattress Clarity. He mainly focuses on mattress reviews and oversees the content across the site.
He likes things simple and take a straightforward, objective approach to his reviews. Joe has personally tested nearly 250 mattresses and always recommends people do their research before buying a new bed. He has been testing mattresses for over 5 years now, so he knows a thing or two when it comes to mattress selection. He has been cited as an authority in the industry by a number of large publications.
Joe has an undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and an MBA from Columbia University.