Nearly all mattresses are made with flexible polyurethane foam (PU foam). PU foam is also widely used as padding under carpets, in upholstered furniture, automotive seating, pillows, apparel, bras, and sports equipment. Not surprisingly, human contact with PU foam occurs around the clock. Most significantly, every night more than 90% of the population spends 7 to 9 hours in intimate body contact with that biggest block of flexible polyurethane foam in your home, your mattress.
The flexible polyurethane foam in your mattress is made from oil; oil processed into petrochemicals. The essential petrochemical required to make the PU foam in your mattress is TDI (toluene di-isocyanate, pronounced two-loo-een-die-eye-sew-sigh-an-ate). TDI is a chemical invention that does not occur in nature. Most TDI production is dedicated to PU foam. TDI is combined with other toxic petrochemicals to create PU foam. All off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs), minute chemical particulate released into the air that conjoins with household and workplace dust. Levels of VOCs indoors can exceed outdoor air concentrations by as much as 1,000 times. Humans are exposed to VOCs through inhalation, ingestion and dermal absorption. At work and at home, exposures repeat, compounding risk.
Based on decades of research and accumulated evidence, some governments formally designated TDI as a carcinogen during the 1980s. Those that did not nevertheless issue cautions that TDI is very likely a human carcinogen because numerous tests on animals have confirmed tumours and/or cancers are induced by TDI. This should surprise no one. Scientists substitute monkeys and other animals for humans because they know, biologically, all we animals are more alike than we are different. The toxicological effects of Toluene for example, on monkey or human, are essentially the same. That is why so many chemicals derived from oil find themselves placed on official warning lists of known carcinogens and suspected human carcinogens.
Cancer is not the only health concern. Scientific literature reports exposure to TDI may result in symptoms ranging from difficulty breathing, coughing, eye, nose, and throat irritation, asthmatic symptoms, nausea, gastrointestinal pain, euphoria, impotence, glaucoma, and persistent skin irritation. Neurological symptoms may include loss of motor control, persistent headaches, depression, loss of memory and personality disorder. Some researchers posit TDI may influence the development of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
Unfortunately, TDI is not the only dangerous petrochemical in PU foam. It is accompanied by a supporting cast of unsavoury chemicals, each with their own health and environmental risks. Like TDI, many are carcinogenic, many are neurotoxic. TDI and the other petrochemicals that make up PU foam can not ever safely biodegrade. Their chemical detritus bioaccumulates through soil, water, air, plants, and animals, including humans. As these chemicals move up the food chain, toxicity intensifies. There is no agreed upon definition of a safe limit for exposure to these petrochemicals and independent experts doubt there is such a thing. In one form or another, all of the polyurethane foam created since the 1950’s, from billions of mattresses and other products is still here, around us and inside us.
Knowing that widespread exposure to petroleum derived chemicals harms health, knowing there are so many avenues and opportunities for exposure, knowing the stability of a healthy climate for human beings is threatened by our excessive dependence on oil, Why spend your nights sleeping with oily petrochemicals?
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