The Most Toxic Places in Your Home: Your Bed

The average person spends about one-third of her life in bed.


The average person spends about one-third of her life in bed. The problem: Most conventional mattresses contain brominated flame retardants, also known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs (mostly banned in Europe since 2004, as well as in some states). “Were just beginning to get worried about PBDEs,” says Philip J. Landrigan, MD, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine and professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

PBDEs are structurally similar to the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that were banned in the 1970s in the United States because they were found to be persistent in the environment and the human body, says David O. Carpenter, MD, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, State University of New York. “PBDEs appear to do almost everything PCBs do, including cause cancer and interfere with immune-system function,” he adds.

Medical experts are currently investigating PBDEs and their possible links to cancer, immune and thyroid suppression, and IQ reduction in children. A 2003 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that women in Texas had breast milk with PBDE levels 10 to 100 times higher than those of women in Europe. “PBDEs affect almost every organ in the body, and levels are rising exponentially in blood and breast milk,” Carpenter notes. “You can be pretty sure that if theyre in breast milk, theyre going to be in kids bodies.”

Mattresses may also contain formaldehyde (which the U.S. National Toxicology Program calls a probable carcinogen) and benzene (classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a carcinogen).

Luckily, there are less-toxic alternatives. Consider an organic mattress (a queen can set you back a few thousand bucks); get more info at www.thecleanbedroom.com or www.theorganicmattressstore.com. For a comparatively cheaper option, choose an organic-cotton or wool futon. Wool, unlike petroleum-based chemicals such as polyurethane foam (found in many mattresses), acts as a natural flame retardant.

If your futon has no wool in it, find out how the manufacturer meets flammability standards; it may use boric acid. If buying conventional, avoid vinyl covers and stain-resistant treatments, as both will release possibly carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting chemicals into your lungs while you slumber. Natural is a must for crib mattresses because babies sleep up to 18 hours a day and have more-vulnerable systems.

Alexandra Zissu
Last Updated: April 22, 2008

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