Are You Sleeping on an Oil Field?

Health risks of traditional foam mattresses and benefits of organic
By Channaly Oum
Channaly Oum
Channaly Oum
October 14, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

If you sleep on a conventional mattress (like most people do), you’re spending a third of your life lying on toxic chemicals. If this little-known fact has you tossing and turning, read on.

Since the 1960s, mattresses have been made of polyurethane foam, a material derived from petroleum that emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The popular memory foam mattresses are made from this material.

But VOCs are only part of the cocktail of chemicals in foam mattresses. Required to be flame-resistant, foam mattresses are imbued with flame-retardant chemicals that can cause cancer and nervous-system disorders.

Walt Bader, a sufferer of a condition called multiple chemical sensitivity and the author of “The Toxic Bedroom,” had several mattresses analyzed by a lab in Atlanta in 2005. One memory foam model was found to emit 61 chemicals.

The next year, he published the first definitive list of chemicals outgassing from memory foam mattresses. 

“Nine of these chemicals are recognized as carcinogens by just about every significant health organization in the world,” Bader said on his website. “And do you know what has happened? Nothing.”

The outgassing is not only nefarious to people who suffer from respiratory issues, but some of the chemicals are also known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. 

As more people become educated about what they’re sleeping on, they are turning to organic mattresses and bedding in greater numbers.

Christine Chamberlin, co-founder of The Clean Bedroom, a retailer of organic mattresses and bedding, said when she first got into the business 10 years ago, her customers were those highly sensitive to chemicals seeking out an organic mattress.

Now, organic mattresses are being sought out by just about anyone concerned with living a healthy lifestyle.

“When we found out what was in our mattress, my husband said, ‘Every mother in the world should know what they are putting their child on at night.’ That was 2004, and The Clean Bedroom was born,” Chamberlin said on the company website. “While we sleep, our immune system recovers and prepares for the day ahead. If your mattress is filled with airborne allergens and chemical toxins, your immune system will battle these rather than repair itself.”

Organic mattresses, made of natural materials such as wool, cotton, and rubber latex, present an alternative to conventional mattresses and are becoming increasingly popular.

Wool is a natural fire retardant, and is excellent for regulating temperature and air circulation—a boon for anyone suffering from night sweats. The natural materials are also resistant to dust mites, which are a trigger for asthma and allergies.

The testimonials Clean Bedroom has received include people suffering from fibromyalgia, which affects pressure points, saying their suffering is relieved; to people waking up without a runny nose for the first time in years; to those grateful for the comfort, who no longer wake up in the middle of of the night and say they’ve never slept better.

The company carries highly-regarded names such as Naturepedic and Savvy Rest.

The fact that organic mattresses now sell at price points comparable to conventional mattresses makes them more within reach. Prices start at $749, while an all-wool Naturepedic mattress starts at $1,995.

The natural materials are organic, and the mattresses are made to order, mostly in the U.S., and also in Canada.

An added benefit of getting a mattress custom made is that for latex mattresses, the two sides of a larger mattress can be customized for different needs—one sleeping partner might prefer a firmer mattress, while the other might prefer something less firm.

“You can be a princess and the pea and your husband can sleep on a cement floor, and you’ll be able to co-exist on the same bed,” Chamberlin said.

Chamberlin, who has traveled to all the supplying factories to make sure they’re clean, said most of her manufacturers don’t keep materials around longer than two months.

There are even organic vegan mattresses for those who don’t want wool. 

For those not ready to make the leap to a new organic mattress, they can start with an organic pillow or mattress pad or topper.

Chamberlin worked with a woman who suffered from fibromyalgia, who purchased an alpaca wool topper. “It’s not very thick, only three-quarters of an inch. She put it on her mattress. Wool has a healing quality and it stimulates blood flow. She slept on it and sent me an email saying she had never felt comfort in sleeping until she had this pad.” 

Likewise, people who suffer from night sweats have benefitted greatly from wool toppers.

Choosing an Organic Mattress

When shopping for a new organic mattress, Chamberlin recommends asking if the mattress was made with certified organic materials and to ask for the certification, to avoid being duped by greenwashing. It should use cotton grown without pesticides and wool from sheep raised on organic farms.

Green Guard is the most valuable certification, while others include Global Organic Textiles (GOTS) for organic wool and cotton; SKAL for organic cotton; and Global Organic Latex Certification (GOLS) certifying organic rubber sap. A few manufacturers also have their factories certified.

Ask what percentage of natural rubber is in the “latex” mattress. To be considered natural it should be 95–97 percent.

The Clean Bedroom
New York MarketCenter
230 Fifth Ave. (at 27th St.)
Suite 1807, 18th floor
New York