Safety of Foam Mattresses

Foam is a standard component in the manufacturing of mattresses, but products like memory foam mattresses have brought the material to the forefront. Memory foam mattresses have gained popularity as an innovative sleep surface that nicely conforms to the shape of an individual's body. But in the wake of public concerns about the prevalence of toxic chemicals and synthetic compounds, memory foam mattresses are being analyzed for their safety. Their chemical composition has been linked to potential dangers and health risks.

Home Hazards

Memory foam mattresses can be combustible since they are a polyurethane product. If ignited, the material can produce a rapid flame spread and emit toxic gases. Even accumulations of polyurethane dust can explode when exposed to an ignition source like a spark or flame. While memory foam mattresses can pose this danger, American manufacturers treat all mattresses with flame retardants to offset this threat. However, these flame retardants commonly contain P.B.D.E.'s, chemical compounds that have been linked to the impairment of nervous and reproductive systems in animals.

Health Hazards

Memory foam mattresses have been observed to retain more heat than standard coil mattresses. Their thermal absorption can cause discomfort for sleepers, especially menopausal women experiencing hot flashes. And since the polyurethane base of a memory foam mattresses is derived from petroleum, it can emit volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.'s). Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have linked V.O.C.'s to respiratory illness and other health issues. Any inhaled dust can harm the lungs, and coarse particles discharged from a foam mattress can also irritate the organ. Eye irritation can also occur from contact with coarse foam dust.

Bottom Line

Memory foam mattresses are composed of many of the same chemicals in regular mattresses, just in different concentrations. Given their comparable composition, the firmer foams in standard coil mattresses have faced similar criticism over V.O.C. emissions. But there are more suspicions about memory foam mattresses since sleepers have prolonged, direct bodily contact with the substance. As a result, some consumers with health and environmental concerns have sought organic mattresses. These eco-friendly varieties are marketed as "chemical-free" alternatives that do not pose the same threat to home safety and personal health. There are even organic versions of memory foam mattresses, which are products that are petroleum-free and contain natural latex rubber instead. But since memory foam mattresses are already more expensive than standard coil mattresses, their green counterparts are likely to have an even higher price markup.