Question #1: What Should I Look For In A Mattress?
There are sooo many things to consider, so let’s start with some mattress shopping basics and work our way from there, okay?
How To Get Around Toxic Fire Retardents
All mattresses are required by law to contain fire-retardent materials unless you receive a prescription from a doctor. Unfortunately, the cheapest and most common way to make mattresses fire-retardent is to douse them in toxic chemicals. Fortunately, there are a few alternatives:
“Some organic mattresses pass fire standards by using wool since wool is a fiber with natural fire retardant properties. There are companies that use only pure wool for this purpose. But be aware that some companies use wool with chemical treatments added to boost the wool’s fire resistance” (source).
Unfortunately, as we discussed in the post on sheepskins and SIDS, naturally occurring elements in sheepskin (and therefore wool) are thought by some to create toxic sleeping conditions. Though I can’t say this definitively, I believe organic wool may be different. More on what I discovered about “naturally occurring” chemicals in wool later in this post.
Other workarounds include using hydrated silica or boric acid. I think the hydrated silica is fine, but I personally would avoid the boric acid. It’s a great natural way to deal with roaches, but it’s still roach killer!
Misleading “Natural” & “Organic” Product Labels
According to this article, “Just because a mattress is called organic does not mean that it’s non-toxic. It really depends on all the materials used. A mattress can be called organic if it contains any organic component such as an organic cotton filling or even just an organic cotton surface fabric. Some organic mattresses have organic cotton filling with a vinyl covering. These may be called organic mattresses, but because of the vinyl covering (and most likely chemical fire retardants), these mattresses are obviously not all that healthy. It’s important to check into all materials used, and it can be difficult to get full disclosure from the retailers or the manufacturer.” Here are a few other factors to consider:
#1: Wool covers are water-resistant but not 100% waterproof, which means that if there is cotton layer underneath the wool it could get wet and mildew. To get around this, either go with a naturally hypo-allergenic, anti-microbial and dust mite resistant natural latex mattress or consider an organic mattress with a waterproof layer made of low density, food-grade polyethylene.
“Environmental scientists agree that low density, food-grade polyethylene is the safest plastic available for waterproofing a crib mattress. It has a simple molecular structure and does not contain phthalates or other unsafe additives. Unlike the production of vinyl, dioxins and other toxic chemicals are not released into the environment during production of low density polyethylene . . . Strict independent testing confirms there are no phthalates or any toxic chemicals in this polyethylene.”(source)
#2: Natural rubber (latex) **may** contain proteins that are allergenic to some people and could theoretically cause anaphylactic shock. This company says that “As of yet, there have NOT been any reported cases of allergies to Pure Natural Latex (or Pure Natural Rubber) and the general incidence of latex allergy is low, less than 1% of the U.S. population. People that are allergic to latex are normally allergic to the type of latex used in making latex gloves (workers who wear latex gloves most of the day have a risk of less than 10%) which is closed cell structure latex.”
They also offer to send you a free test kit if you are considering a purchase. Also, it’s important to know “there is no such thing as 100% pure natural rubber latex. In order to make the natural rubber into a foam block, there has to be some chemical processing. Some natural latex does come close to pure, but there are many mattresses out there that are called natural latex that really are a blend of natural rubber and toxic chemicals. So if you want a latex mattress for your baby, you need to dig deep to find one that is as pure as possible.” (source)
Got it? NO????
That’s okay! Let’s start over.
First, check out company ratings in this buying guide (thank you Renee K for sharing this resource!). Though it’s specifically geared toward crib mattresses many of the companies reviewed also have adult-sized mattresses available. Once you’ve decided on a couple you’re interested, check them against the tips above to see if any red flags come up.
A few comments about the buying guide’s recommendations: Though boric acid is considered by some to have a low toxicity rating, I’m just not comfortable with using roach killer as a waterproofing agent. Also, antimony is listed as a “chemical of concern’ but arsenic and phosphorous are not. I would double check with manufacturers on whether they contain these two compounds before making a final decision on a purchase. Finally, I would avoid any mattresses that have un-waterproofed organic cotton rather than wool/latex as the surface material. It’s just too easy for it to accidentally get wet and mildew. Removable cotton pads/wool pads that can be washed are fine.
Speaking of removable moisture-absorbing covers, this is the most ridiculously cheap and easy option available - just cover with a cotton sheet and you’re done! If you’re not familiar with wool, it has historically been used as a diaper cover because it is very antimicrobial. Unlike sheepskins, which should be washed only rarely, I’d go ahead and wash these often even though they won’t last as long to prevent the development of S. Brevicaulis. Wool requires special care when it come to washing, but if you follow these instructions you should be fine (make sure to put them in the dryer or hot sun to prevent mildew).
Note: Firm mattresses are typically recommended for babies, especially if they are being placed on their tummy to sleep because a soft mattress could interfere with breathing. Wool puddle pads and other pads are considered fine by most, but I’d personally make sure it’s not too “cushy” in there!
Question #2: I Can’t Invest In A New Mattress Right Now. Is There A More Affordable Option Available?
Yes, you can wrap your current mattress (or your baby’s crib mattress) in a low density, food-grade polyethylene cover (commonly called the Babesafe cover). It’s fairly inexpensive, and as I mentioned earlier “food-grade polyethylene is the safest plastic available for waterproofing a crib mattress [or other mattress]. It has a simple molecular structure and does not contain phthalates or other unsafe additives. Unlike the production of vinyl, dioxins and other toxic chemicals are not released into the environment during production of low density polyethylene . . . Strict independent testing confirms there are no phthalates or any toxic chemicals in this polyethylene.” (source). It’s also really easy to use:
Downsides: According to reports it’s pretty noisy, so if you’re the type to sneak out of bed after your littles fall asleep (like Daddypotamus and I do every night) be warned! Also, keep in mind that polyethylene is not breathable – you’ll probably want to add a washable cotton mattress pad over the cover if it’s going on an adult bed. A cotton sheet is all that is recommended for crib bedding so that the sleeping surface is firm rather than squishy).
Where to buy: You can Google “low density, food-grade polyethylene mattress cover” to find the best prices on the crib versions, but the only manufacturer of adult-sized covers I am aware of can be found here.
Question #3: If I can’t afford a new non-toxic mattress should I replace my old one with a conventional mattress?
I probably wouldn’t. Though it’s less likely to contain fungus and bacteria, the “new” smell it comes with means it’s offgassing tons of chemicals into the air. I’d just wrap my old mattress and start saving for a better one down the road.
Question #4: Why Do Lambskins Contain Arsenic, Antimony and Phophorous?
I thought it was kind of odd that sheepskins would naturally contain such toxic ingredients so I looked into it. Surprise surprise! They are actually dipped in a slew of chemicals including arsenic to control ticks and fleas.
“The majority of former sheep dips investigated to date are contaminated with persistent dip chemicals at levels that are hazardous to humans, livestock and the environment. Arsenic and the organochlorine pesticide dieldrin are the two main contaminants found at sheep dips sites.
Other organochlorine pesticides that have been found at sheep dips sites in New Zealand are lindane, DDT, aldrin and endrin. Long term exposure to organochlorine pesticides can affect the central nervous system and can cause liver damage in humans and animals. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen and is very toxic to humans and animals” (Source: Sheep Dip Factsheet).
I haven’t yet been able to confirm this regarding antimony and phosphorous, but I wouldn’t be surprised if excessive levels are really contaminants from industrial practices.
Question #5: So, is there something we can do to kill out the S. Brevicaulis fungus? I’m no lover of things like Lysol, but it does kill out a ton of different things like this. What is out there that parents can safely use on their mattresses to control S. Brevicaulis?
Unfortunately, it appears that this fungus likes to eat chemicals so it’s possible that anything you spray on it will just feed it The good news is that mattress wrapping does seem to be very effective at dealing with gasses right on the sleeping surface.
Question #6: So what about co-sleeping? My son has peed on our mattress before (a couple times) but we have an allergen cover now. How serious do you think this toxic mattress issue is?
I slept with both of my babies on a chemical-laden memory foam mattress that Daddypotamus and I purchased before we knew better, and most of my friends did the same. Personally, I think toxic mattresses are most likely to have an effect if other factors are present – a vaccine reaction, serious illness, underdeveloped neurology with respect to breathing patterns, etc.
Now that we know better we will do better, but if covers weren’t available and we couldn’t afford a new mattress I would still bedshare. Babies and their mothers are deeply linked in an emotional AND physiological sense, and I believe this connection reduces the risk of SIDS – more on why soon!