Foam Mattresses Were Making People Sick: How A Company Called CertiPUR-US® Helps Keep Polyurethane Foams Cleaner And Safer

Almost all online mattress options as well as most beds sold in retail mattress stores are made using polyurethane foam in one form or another. Largely unregulated, and never really policed, even by the mattress industry itself, these foams were at one time notorious for their fumes and chemical smells, often enough to make a small group of these mattress owners sick and give them severe headaches, hives, rashes, and dizzy spells.

I can remember years ago, as a mattress manufacturer, having to carefully choose the components used in my own mattress designs, careful to avoid certain brands or sources that produced foams that simply reaked of benzene, toluene, and other toxic volatile organic compounds.

We would tell our fabricating facilities to open up all of the incoming sealed bags of our polyurethane foam buns (the big blocks that would be ultimately sliced into the layers that make up the “cake recipe” style construction of the typical foam mattress) and air them out for at least a week before building a run of mattresses.

Frankly, I would be mortified when I got a call from an upset customer complaining of headaches and hives, and we’d often have to refund our customers because of the side effects. Turned out that a lot of my competitors online (who were often friends) were having the same issue. But why do these foam materials smell and off-gas these gaseous fumes?

polyurethane foam is made using petroleum based chemicals

The compounds that form the fumes commonly associated with polyurethane foams, as well as vinyl floors, that “new car smell” and other plastic products are generally classified  as VOCs or volatile organic compounds-“volatile” meaning they float through the air easily, “organic” as in they contain carbon (not “organic farming” organic, but “fossil fuel” organic).

The EPA’s definition of a VOC is longwinded and will make your eyes roll back in your head, and the the fact of the matter is that the agency doesn’t actually regulate VOCs in household products.

The chemicals in these VOC’s that offgas from foam mattresses vary a lot. They might be tiny amounts of unreacted polyol or diisocyanate, the catalyst 2-ethyl-hexanoic acid, or toluene. Many others can come off, as well.

In addition to the foam layers and even the textile for the outer covering, the glues used up until pretty recently were usually formaldehyde based quick set adhesives, though most bed in a box manufacturers have switched over to odorless and safer water based adhesives that are naturally derived.

As early on as 2007, I finally gave up selling petroleum based foams in any of my mattresses, and totally reinvented my business model, selling natural latex rubber mattresses instead.

There was a huge tradeoff though, because latex was extremely expensive and very heavy, and competing against the early bed in a box competitors was tough, and although we established a little niche selling our botanically derived latex beds, there was really no way we could ultimately compete on price.

Fast forward in time, and you’ll find over 200 online bed in a box mattress retailers all pitching you their recipe, their formula for the perfect mattress, and almost every single one of them has a polyurethane ingredient in them.

The good news is that the foam industry began cleaning itself up a few years back, completely reinventing new techniques for making foams that drastically reduced emissions from VOC compounds.

Most polyurethane foams, including memory foam, gel foam, and the thick piece of firmer foam that’s typically used as the bottom support layer of most “bed in a box” mattresses, have become cleaner, safer, and more appealing to the consumer.

The reason for this? A company called CertiPUR-US® -a not-for-profit organization that focuses on certification of flexible polyurethane foam contained in bedding and upholstered furniture to assure low emissions and high performance, among other things.

A Health Checkup for Foam

When you buy a mattress online, or many other products that contain certified foam, you can be confident that the polyurethane foam inside meets CertiPUR-US® standards for content, emissions, and durability, and has been analyzed by independent, accredited testing laboratories.

The Technical Guidelines provide complete details on the CertiPUR-US®  certification process and were established with guidance from the global foam industry and in conjunction with the leadership of the mattress and upholstered furniture industries. In addition, an advisory panel of scientists, academics, environmentalists and representatives of consumer groups provided invaluable input in the development process.

When I was in the business early on, being in the foam manufacturing business was like the wild west, imported foams were being shipped in from unknown countries of origin, and many factories in the U.S. were trying to compete with the low cost imports, making foams with the most hazardous and least expensive materials and techniques possible. That has all changed these days, with safe, durable, and super comfy foam components readily available.

Since most of the mattress industry is using these safer foams, prices are consistent and no company really has the edge over another. For example, we recommend a company called Puffy, which uses a comprehensive inventory of CertiPUR-US® foams to build all three of their models, and their pricing is consistent with other similar designs by other companies, even though their mattresses are designed with highly specialized materials that are proprietary and trademarked so that it is difficult for other manufacturers to copy them.

All certified flexible polyurethane foams are tested and analyzed twice in the first year, and re-certified annually thereafter. In addition, the organization conducts random on-site foam production plant inspections of participating foam producers. The seal and certification can only be used if the foam manufacturers use certain materials, recipes, and techniques to make sure the foam is largely inert and safe.

To make sure you are buying the safest mattress possible, examine all of the specs on the mattress you are considering or ask a sales rep if all of the foam materials used in the construction of their mattress is CertiPUR-US®.

CertiPUR-US® certified foam is:

  • Made without ozone depleting chemicals

  • Made without PBDEs, TDCPP or TCEP (“Tris”) flame retardants.

  • Made without mercury, lead and heavy metals

  • Made without formaldehyde

  • Made without phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission

  • Low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) emissions for indoor air quality (less than 0.5 parts per million)

The way CertiPUR-US® certified materials are tested and evaluated is pretty interesting, actually. To test, polyurethane foam samples are placed in a chamber for three days with air blowing over it, while continuous samples are collected of the sealed chamber’s air.

CertiPUR-US® has established standards for emissions and content for foam products, including an upper limit on total VOCs of 0.5 parts per million (ppm). CertiPUR-US’s technical document outlines this in great technical detail.

(Note: Michael Crowell, CertiPUR-US’s executive director, has pointed out that CertiPUR-US does not necessarily test an entire mattress, just the polyurethane foam. For example, it doesn’t test latex foam, which is typically botanically derived and contains no polyurethane materials.

In the case of a synthetic latex, called SBR, or styrene butadiene rubber, testing can be done, since that material is a petroleum distillate product.

CertiPUR-US derives its limits “from a number of sources including the EPA, CPSCREACH, and RoHS,” Crowell has stated. For example, a cube of polyurethane foam should not give off more than 0.16 ppm of benzene after 72 hours to get the CertiPUR-US seal.

(For reference, OSHA’s benzene limit is 1 ppm over an eight-hour workday.) For toluene, another likely VOC, CertiPUR-US’s limit is 0.13 ppm (OSHA’s limit is 200 ppm over eight hours).

So, keep in mind that these results and limits  are for adults, but what about for infants? Babies spend many more hours a day sleeping and so have a larger window for potential exposure to VOCs, say the authors of a 2014 study on the VOCs emitted from crib mattresses.

 The study found that VOCs coming from polyurethane crib mattresses at room temperature were about the same level as VOCs coming from other indoor emitters, such as laminate flooring. Some studies have linked high levels of some VOCs, such as benzene and toluene, to increased risk of asthma and allergies in some young kids.

Keep in mind that CertiPUR-US’s limits for VOCs are tested only after after the tested material has been permitted to air out for three days. If you have a vacuum-packed mattress shipped to you, you also can air it out.

The authors of the crib mattress study measured the VOCs in new mattresses and in mattresses around five years old and found that the levels of VOCs in polyurethane foam do decrease over time.

Kevin Purdy, who wrote the the definitive baby mattress guide, told me that certain foam crib mattresses off gassed strongly right after he took them out of their boxes. Kind of like a new car smell, he said. The smell was still quite strong after a day, even through the sheets, a lot less odorous by the second day, and pretty much gone by the third or fourth day.

Leaving your new mattress in a room with some airflow for a few days is a great idea, whether we are talking crib mattress or an adult sized bed. Get rid of the smell, and you are getting rid of the VOCs too.

What To Do If You Don’t Want To Buy A Polyurethane Foam Mattress

Most “bed in a box” options are going to be made using polyurethane foams, any way you slice it, regardless of the brand. There is one category of mattresses that consumers love, and they don’t contain one drop of synthetic, petroleum based ingredients. Natural latex.

From 2007-1018, I was the CEO of the largest natural latex mattress company on the web. All of our mattresses were made using botanically derived, hand collected pure latex rubber. You can find them online, and if you are sensitive to smells, chemical fumes, or if you break out in rashes or hives when exposed to fumes, it may be your best bet.

A pure latex mattress will cost you a little bit more, but its totally worth it for the comfort and support you will receive. Also, a natural latex mattress will last FAR longer than any other kind of mattress. You can check out our latex mattress page here and learn more.

Toxic chemicals in memory foam: the old days, before foams were truly scrutinized

Memory foam can be found in mattresses, toppers, pillows, and more. It’s popular in the mattress industry due to its pressure-relieving qualities, and is widely used in about 75% of “bed in a box” mattress options, but when it first appeared in the bedding industry some 20 years ago, while it was popular, it also created controversy and plenty of lawsuits. Memory foam contains a myriad of additional chemicals beyond just polyurethane foam, including foaming agents, curing resins, expanding agents, benzene, toluene, and a witches brew of nasty stuff.

Just how bad are these chemicals? What do we really know about memory foam?

  1. There have been legal consequences for memory foam companies which claimed their products are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

  2. Some memory foam mattresses contain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, and naphthalene.

  3. Memory foam may contain isocyanates, which, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. Exposure to isocyanates can also lead to chest tightness and asthma.

Polyurethane: flame retardants, off-gassing, and safety

Memory foam mattresses often contain chemical flame retardants which have been linked to a litany of health problems, including developmental brain disorders, cancer, and obesity.

It’s not uncommon to notice a chemical off-gassing smell upon unpacking a memory foam mattress. The best way to get rid of the odor is to allow the mattress to air out by moving air through the room. This can be done by opening doors and windows and running a fan.

Memory Foam Health Risks

So what’s the risk? The risk is the unknown. We can’t positively say a memory foam mattress will cause “this effect.” Every person is different. Every mattress is different. Some memory foam mattress users complain of waking with headaches. Others develop respiratory issues such as asthma. Still, others have concerns about the long-term health effects of years of nightly exposure to this material.

It’s not certain what risk every individual might encounter. But what you can do is use the information available about memory foam to make the best possible decision.

Evaluating risk is something that we do every day, whether we are crossing the street or choosing foods to buy at the supermarket. Your mattress choice is the same thing. Gather relevant information, consider organic mattress options, and make the choice that is wisest for you.