Unless PU foam is treated with chemical fire retardants (FRs), it burns faster and hotter than a marshmallow at a camp fire. It is so flammable, firefighters sometimes refer to PU foam as “solid gasoline”. The history of FRs in PU foam is grim. The damage done by the FR PBDE (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) is instructive. Sleeping on polyurethane foam treated with PBDEs may harm the liver, impair brain development, or disrupt estrogen and thyroid hormones. Symptoms may include elevated heartbeat, diarrhea, heat intolerance and most ironically, sleeping problems. In North America, more than 99% of all mother’s milk contains PBDEs. This chemical invasion into the sanctity of the mother/child bond is among the most repugnant confirmations that the sale of chemical heavy products like mattresses has priority over the perpetuation of natural, healthy human life. It prompts this question, ‘When will chemical trespass by corporations into your body, without your informed consent, be recognized as the crime that it is?’
PBDEs are present in nearly each and every human body in North America, and only slightly less present amongst Europeans where regulatory reaction time was swifter. Pathways for PBDEs and all VOCs into the human body are many, but inhalation is high on the list. While asleep on your mattress your nose and mouth draw on average, 6,400 breaths per night, every night of your life. This intimate, long term, cumulative chemical exposure ought to be enough to keep anyone awake at night, but it’s worse than that. Because PBDEs were allowed to migrate through the entire food chain, they are ingested with the meat, fish, dairy and vegetables we consume. PBDEs have mostly phased out of use, but they are still with us, and will remain in us for generations.
When will chemical trespass by corporations into your body, without your informed consent, be recognized as the crime that it is?
While phasing out PBDEs, regulations for burn testing mattresses were craftily revised. As a result, mattresses are now required to pass a “fire barrier“ test. This change allowed PU foam manufacturers to stop infusing FRs into PU foam formulations, but it did not require them to do so. Depending on manufacturer, FRs may, or may not, be inside the PU foam of your mattress. Most mattress makers opted to move FRs to the textiles covering the PU foam. These FR “barrier textiles” often contain relatively innocuous materials such as glass fibre, rayon, and viscose. Unfortunately, these materials are combined with one or more chemical FRs that are no less alarming than PBDEs. The fire barrier in your mattress may contain Boric Acid which represses fire, but is also a biocide used to kill cockroaches. Boric acid absorbs through human skin. Long term exposure may culminate in damage to kidney function. If not Boric acid, your mattress fire barrier may contain Antimony Trioxide. Widely acknowledged as a carcinogen, Antimony can become airborne and may trigger or worsen respiratory irritation, pneumoconiosis, chronic intestinal inflammation and pulmonary toxicity. Melamine is another FR sometimes used in mattress fire barriers because its high nitrogen content suppresses fire. You may recall Melamine was the chemical that contaminated baby food in China, and dog food that killed pets in the United States. Melamine can be absorbed through human skin, irritate airways and eyes. Chronic exposure may cause cancer, kidney and reproductive damage. Any dive into melamine inevitably mentions it in conjunction with cyanide and formaldehyde. There are more FRs than these, and many whose chemical composition is unknown, because there is no requirement to publicly disclose any information.
After FRs migrated to mattress covers, many mattress brands seized upon this change to boast that polyurethane foams inside their mattresses contain no fire retardants at all. These claims may be true, but they are not truthful. By choosing to advertise only where FRs are not, without informing you where the FRs are, and what they are, many mattress brands misdirect, mislead and commit a significant self-serving sin of omission. This is especially unconscionable considering that ‘fire barrier’ FRs are now placed in much closer proximity to your nose, nostrils, mouth, eyes and skin than ever before.
Public information about recent FR developments is shielded by proprietary claims. Most major mattress brands do not divulge any details about their FRs. Within the conventional mattress industry, it’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Nevertheless, a 2015 EPA update on PU foam and FR formulations concluded that the “human health endpoints” they evaluated continue to include, “acute toxicity, carcinogenicity, genotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, repeated dose toxicity, skin sensitization, respiratory sensitization, eye irritation, and dermal irritation”. The revolving door of chemical fire retardant solutions is no solution at all.
Author’s Note: All facts and information referenced in the Why Now? series, including facts and information about chemicals and their impacts on human health and environment, have been drawn from previously published sources in the European Union, United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and India. Sources include national and state government documents, government funded agencies, national and international corporations, peer reviewed research from universities, the industrial safety industry, material data safety sheets, worker’s compensation board records, articles published in major newspapers, articles published by national and international news reporting services, published authors respected in their fields, and reports and studies published by reputable nonprofits and environmental organizations. Len Laycock