Are You Buying A Mattress With Secret, Hazardous Fire Retardants Buried Inside?

Most people who are purchasing a new mattress might not even be aware that strict Federal laws require that either fire retardant chemicals or fire proof textiles must be used in the fabrication of any mattress sold in the U.S.A. to conform to Federal Regulations often referred to in the industry as 16 CFR Parts 1632 and 1633.

These regulations can be traced back to the days when cigarette smoking in bed caused horrific fires in which thousands of people per year burned alive while sleeping. Mattresses are made with combustible materials, and although the vast majority of Americans have stopped smoking, mattress fires (which can also act as an accelerant and burn down an entire house) still happen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported that only 15.5% of the adult population were current smokers in 2016, vs. 33.2% in 1980. Despite today’s comparatively small percentage of smokers, smoking remained the leading cause of home fire deaths over the total five-year period of 2012-2016. 

During 2012-2016, an estimated annual average of 18,100 fires reported of residential structural fires started by smoking materials killed an average of 590 (23%) people annually, injured 1,130 (10%) per year, and caused $476 million in direct property damage (7%) per year. 

Because of this, federal law requires that the prototype for any mattress purchased in the U.S.A. must pass stringent “burn tests”, and in fact, when a manufacturer creates a new mattress design that varies in any way whatsoever from previous models or designs, six samples of the new mattress prototype must be tested, and the testing, though seemingly draconian, is actually pretty accurate. The testing requires that three mattresses along with a foundation (box spring) and three separate mattresses, be subject to an open flame both on the top of the mattress and on the side edge. 

These tests are very rigorous and challenging, and require that the manufacturer apply fire retardant chemicals, by spraying or dipping a fabric material, use a material that is inherently or naturally fire retardant (wool, for example) or a combination of both, acting much like a heat shield on a spacecraft.

The fire barrier is typically placed right underneath the decorative outer encasement that you make body contact with, a kind of sleeve or glove. but consumers need to be aware that you are in pretty close contact with these materials, and for extended periods of time. And the chemicals can be pretty hazardous.

The principal aspect of the national mattress standard (referred to as 16 CFR Part 1633) is the “open-flame” test. The standard requires that any fire resulting from a mattress exposed to an open-flame heat source, such as lighters, matches, or candles, must burn more slowly and generate less heat than fires involving non-compliant mattresses today.

Basically, the point of the law is that the use of a fire barrier will substantially increase the amount of time that consumers will have to detect and escape from a mattress fire.

By using a fire resistant barrier, whether chemical or not, the risk of flashover, which occurs when the entire contents of a room ignite simultaneously, is reduced. Once flashover occurs, escaping from a fully engulfed bedroom is impossible, and the fire spreads to other parts of a house.

How A Mattress Burn Test Works

The test methods that are used to determine compliance are based on research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in conjunction with the Sleep Products Safety Council.  The law was updated in 2007, and any mattress, in order to be granted what is known as a “fire tag”, the label that you will find on any mattress purchased in the U.S., must meet tough measures, including the amount of heat which is reflected from the mattress, and the duration that a mattress can endure direct exposure to a Bunsen burner style flame source.

Burn labs for mattresses are a lucrative business these days, because there are more and more bed in a box e-commerce mattress manufacturers jockeying for position in an already crowded marketplace. Getting through the test with a pass, however, is a gauntlet for mattress manufacturers. 

Because of this, some of the big mattress manufacturers have built their own certified burn test facilities. Once a sample mattress is strapped into the apparatus required to hold it, a burner is turned on that is overhead, pointing a flame such that is is in direct contact with the outer cover of the mattress. The fire jet must burn for 70 seconds, and at the same time, a separate side mounted burner aimed at the edge of the mattress, must burn for 50 seconds in a room  that is tightly controlled for temperature and humidity. The mattress needs to be conditioned by rolling and compression to provide a realistic surface that has been slept on prior to the test, and once finished, the charred test mattresses are immediately disposed of.

Bottom line: Mattresses sold in this country are essentially fire-proofed before you get them in your home. The testing and the law likely save as many as 270 lives per years, preventing about 78% of mattress proximity fires, according to Julie Vallese, senior spokeswoman for the Washington D.C. based Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Despite the number of lives saved, many researchers, doctors, and even mattress manufacturers have voiced grave concerns over introducing fire retardant chemicals into homes which already contain furnishings laced with pains, stain guard materials, and other substances.

Many believe that people who are hypersensitive to these compounds creates a far greater risk factor that the potential of fire. Is it unfair to expose all Americans to these chemicals and materials when a small percentage of people actually die in fires that start with a mattress?

Some troublesome fire retardant chemicals have been identified as bioaccumulators, which means they persist in the environment, and some are suspected developmental toxicants, which means they could harm unborn fetuses, and a handful of these chemicals are patently carcinogenic.

Unlike the federal “smoldering regulation” that went into effect more than 30 years ago and whose purpose was to address slow, insidious fires from cigarettes, the current regulations spotlight fast flaring fires started by an open flame such as a candle or lighter. Fast and flash point are the operative words in the mindset of the regulations.

Because of their size and weight, a mattress is “one of the largest fuel sources in your home,” says Tom Chapin, director of research and development for Northbrook-based Underwriters Laboratories, which is one of about a dozen independent labs testing mattresses for compliance with the 2007 standard.

Without the fire retardant standards in place today, an entire mattress would be engulfed in roaring flames rising 4 to 5 feet above the top of the mattress, Chapin states, with dramatic intent.

Within five minutes the heat would be so great, that other objects in the room begin to spontaneously combust, a phenomenon known as flashover, Chapin explains. “You can’t save a life at that point.”

“I know the mattress manufacturers are probably very concerned about health issues. They are keenly aware that their customers are lying on their products and that their noses are centimeters away from what could be a toxic soup, says Lauren Heine, a Washington-based environmental engineer and a member of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency steering committee looking into furniture flame retardancy.

Incredibly, ”Nobody can really find out what’s in their mattress. That’s one of the big issues.” For someone who is sensitive to these hazardous chemicals, this is critical information, Heine says.

Although the mattress industry stopped using more dangerous toxins like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) as a flame retardant in mattresses a few years back, there are plenty of people walking around who still have levels of such bio-accumulators  in their bodies.

It is likely that some mattress manufacturers may be using antimony trioxide in their fire barriers, identified as a probable carcinogen, though most have moved on to what are called mechanical fire barriers, which employ inert textiles, including wool, which is the only truly natural fire retardant material. 

Other chemicals that might still be used in fire barriers include boric acid, barriers made of rayon that has been impregnated with silica (tiny fragments of glass or clay, some variants of which have been shown to be carcinogenic), and some barriers made from rayon that has been impregnated with ammonium polyphosphate.

The disturbing fact that the largest mattress manufacturers in the U.S., Sealy, Serta, Simmons and Spring Air are tight-lipped about the exact nature of their fire barriers could be construed as disturbing. Other companies are silent about their barriers, too, but it may be that creating a safer, non-chemical fire barrier involves very expensive proprietary technology, and as a trade secret, even the consumer doesn’t have full access to all of the ingredients. 

As consumers ask more questions and shy away from companies who don’t offer full transparency about every line item ingredient in their beds, though, most manufacturers are reinventing their mattresses and using inert fabric fire barriers within the mattress, according to Ryan Trainer, executive vice president of the International Sleep Products Association, the industry’s powerful trade group.

These non-toxic fire barrier fabric sleeves encapsulate the foam core of the mattress, separating it from the fire. The barriers can now be made from woven, knitted or non-woven fabrics, but the cleanest and most recognizable fabric barrier is wool. Still, our own homes are considered toxic, simply because of the materials, everything from building materials, paints, stains, grouts, adhesives, textiles, and upholstery products that are present.

But it isn’t just chemically sensitive people who are at risk from chemical overload, according to Dr. Doris Rapp, an environmental medicine doctor based in Arizona. Children, pregnant women and the elderly are other high-risk groups, groups that are typically not involved in test groups to begin with. 

How Do I Purchase A Safe Mattress With A Non-Toxic Fire Barrier?

Aside from using our Trusted Dealer program, where we recommend manufacturers and retailers who build safe, non-toxic mattresses and disclose their ingredients and even their mythology for manufacturing, consumers just need to ask questions. 

If you are on a web site, do a search for components, fire barrier design, FR compliance, etc, or simply get on a chat and ask specifically, “what exactly do you use as a fire barrier and explain how it’s safe?” or  ask them to provide a MSDS (material safety data sheet) which is a legal document that lists every single ingredient that is included in the mattress you are considering. If they tell you they do not disclose the information or provide a MSDS, walk away and find another mattress.

Mark Strobel is a small mattress manufacturer located in Indiana who launched an internet campaign against the new federal regulation and will build a prescription mattress for any consumer without a fire barrier, thanks to a loophole in the regulation that allows consumers to buy a fire barrier free mattress with a doctor’s prescription, which declares them chemically compromised, sensitive to fragrances or other chemicals, or other wise medically unable to utilize a product with either poor documentation or unknown ingredients.

And many manufacturers build all-natural wool and cotton beds (natural materials tend to burn more slowly), without a fire barrier at all, since their products will not burn. Unfortunately, there is nothing more uncomfortable than a mattress made from wool and cotton layers, as they get rock hard very fast, are extremely firm, and have no spring back or give.

According to Scott Carwile, one of the owners of California-based Vivetique (, his company has burned more than $100,000 worth of cotton/wool mattresses and figured out how to reach compliance with the new standard by merely “changing the ratio of wool and cotton.”

Heine believes mattresses may be only the beginning of a trend toward more flame-retardant regulation. Furniture may be next. In fact, a similar open-flame standard for upholstered furniture is currently working its way through the CPSC.

To check out your existing mattress to see if it is compliant, look for the mandatory label which is stitched to the mattress. If a mattress meets the new standard it will include the date of manufacture and the verbage: “This mattress meets the requirements of 16 CFR Part 1633 (federal flammability (open flame) standard … .”.

Some mattresses that comply will have the UL logo on the label, indicating the the manufacturer hired Underwriters Laboratories to perform the compliance testing, considered by many to be the gold standard of testing and compliance, although UL is one of about 10 private labs that are qualified to do the testing.