Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool? Wool is great for staying warm and dry, but did you know that it’s also great to sleep on? Many parents ask us what the healthiest options are for children’s mattresses and futons, so we’ve compiled these tips to help you when you shop. The good news is that mattresses containing the toxic flame retardants PBDEs have been prohibited from sale in Washington stores since January 2008.
Wool is the best choice, hands down, if it fits your budget.
Wool is naturally flame resistant and is free of flame retardant chemicals. Not all flame retardants are highly toxic, but if you choose wool, you can avoid them altogether. If your child has allergies or tends to be sensitive to chemicals, wool does contain lanolin, a potentially allergenic chemical naturally produced by sheep. However, this does not appear to be a common concern because there is no skin contact. Mineral oil can also be used during wool processing.
Cotton and latex are second best because they use naturally fire resistant barrier cloth.
Cotton and latex mattresses are typically wrapped in naturally fire resistant barrier cloth or may be treated with a flame retardant such as boric acid. It is important to ask, before buying, which type of barrier cloth is being used and if additional flame retardants have been applied to it. Some mattresses contain a blend of wool and cotton. If you are concerned about allergies to latex, you may want to discuss your choice with your health care provider. Again, this problem appears to be rare because there is no skin contact.
The least healthy choice is polyurethane foam.
This is the typical filling used in mattresses, including memory foam mattresses. Although polyurethane mattresses sold in Washington can no longer contain PBDEs, other toxic flame retardants may be used. It is important to ask, before buying, which flame retardants have been applied.
Also, the foam itself may release irritating gases especially when it is new or improperly cured. There is little information available on how often this occurs and what chemicals are released, but we recommend giving a new mattress a few weeks to air out before using and returning any mattress that has a strong odor after these first few weeks.
Are there organic mattresses?
The government does not regulate the labeling of mattresses as “organic” or “natural,” giving opportunity for creative marketing and greenwashing. Mattresses themselves cannot be certified organic, but the cotton, wool and latex used in the mattresses can be correctly labeled organic. Organic production of wool, cotton, and natural latex reduces the harmful effects of pesticides on workers and the environment. (Note: If you are concerned about reducing your child’s exposure to pesticides, the most effective step to take is to choose organic produce as often as possible. See our previous issue for more on food choices.)
Say “no” to stain treatments and vinyl.
No matter how tempting, always turn down stain treatments as they contain perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) associated with various health concerns. Also watch out for vinyl covers, typical on crib mattresses.
Good luck, and sleep well!