Polyurethane Foam Might Just Be a Toxic Nightmare

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If you’ve found yourself shopping for a crib mattress or pack and play anytime in the last 70 years, chances are you’ve found yourself choosing between mattresses made largely from flexible polyurethane foam.

Flexible polyurethane foam – that’s just plain old foam (including memory foam) to the layperson – is ubiquitous in the mattress industry. Even if you sleep on a good old fashioned coil-spring mattress, chances are there’s still polyurethane foam somewhere inside it. 

Add to that, there’s probably foam pretty much everywhere else in your house, too.

Polyurethane foam is ubiquitous in our lives, getting us from infancy onwards affordably and comfortably. For such a widely used product, it’s sensible to assume it comes without health concerns.

Unfortunately, research suggests that’s not the case. In fact, infants are exposed to chemical emissions from crib mattresses while they sleep, with polyurethane foam releasing a greater range of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) as compared to polyester foam.

As more research is done, consumers are starting to wonder: is foam safe?

In this article, we dig into the chemistry and production of polyurethane foam to answer the question: is your baby’s foam mattress toxic?

Introducing Polyurethane Foam

Polyurethanes, like all plastics, are polymers made by reacting diisocyanates (MDI and/or TDI) with a range of polyols. Depending on the desired end product, chemical formulations may contain other ingredients such as catalysts, blowing agents and possibly flame retardants.

Polyurethanes.org

Mattress manufacturers have been using polyurethane foam since the 1960s. 

However, it’s history goes back much further. 

Invented in the 1930s by Dr. Otto Bayer, polyurethanes became widely used during WWII. Initially used as a rubber substitute, the applications for polyurethane broadened significantly during this period. 

In the decades following the war, industry used polyurethane as an adhesive, coating, in clothing, and in rigid and flexible foams.

These days, it’s common to see it in car seats, pack n plays, mattresses, and all sorts of other furniture.

Miracle Invention or Health & Environmental Nightmare?

Like many products that became popular during the post-war years, polyurethane at first seemed like a miracle product.

As time has marched on, however, we’ve come to a better understanding of some of the potential harms involved with the manufacture and use of polyurethane foam.

Diisocyanates are the Building Blocks of Polyurethane Foam

Polyurethanes are made when diisocyanates (methylene diphenyl diisocyanate [MDI] and/or toluene diisocyanate [TDI]) react with range of polyols.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), exposure to some of the main ingredients of polyurethane foam – isocyanates – can cause a range of negative health effects, including asthma, lung damage and respiratory problems and damage and skin and eye irritation.

Both MDI and TDI need to be used with caution during polyurethane manufacturing. However, TDI is particularly problematic as a probable carcinogen and toxin.

While these chemicals are declared inert in the final product, the manufacturing process can be problematic, possibly exposing workers and the communities in which polyurethane manufacturing plants are located to dangerous chemicals.

Some Polyurethane Foam is Rife with Flame Retardants

Read more about the most common flame retardant chemicals and how to minimize your family’s exposure.

In addition to diisocyanates, polyurethane foam is extremely flammable, leading manufacturers to frequently treat it with flame retardant chemicals. 

Americans are often exposed to flame retardant chemicals in their daily lives. The chemicals are widely used in products such as household furniture, textiles, and electronic equipment. Many flame retardant chemicals can persist in the environment, and studies have shown that some may be hazardous to people and animals.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)

If you decide a polyurethane foam product is the right choice for your family, look for one that’s independently certified not to contain TDCPP by choosing CertiPUR-US® certified foam. Examples of crib mattresses made with this certified foam include the Colgate Eco Classica III, Nook Pebble Air and Nook Pebble Lite.

Does Polyurethane Give Out Toxic Fumes?

Polyurethanes find uses in various products, especially cushion furniture, pillows, and mattresses. Likewise, some products where you can see this substance used include baby car seats and playmats.

However, several toxic chemical components go into the manufacture of polyurethane foams. Here’s a round-up of all the chemicals used to make polyurethane foam mattresses and their effects on your health and well-being.

1. Benzene

Benzene is an essential chemical component used in manufacturing polyurethane foam mattresses. The chemical substance is known to damage the DNA – a core component of the cell.

Damage caused to the DNA can lead to complications in various body parts, causing diseases and disorders like leukemia and a host of cancer-related problems. So, polyurethane products contain harmful chemicals such as Benzene, and it is best to avoid using them.

2. Chlorine

Chlorine is another toxin found in polyurethane-based foam mattresses, and the chemical is capable of causing cancers in the bladder and rectum. While Chlorine can kill certain viruses and is used to treat water, when you consume this substance or inhale its fumes, it can lead to chlorine poisoning. A host of symptoms accompany chlorine poisoning, including throat swelling, a burning sensation in the mouth, stomach pain, and vomiting.

3. Formaldehyde

Foam mattresses also consist of formaldehyde. Inhaling the fumes of this toxin can cause damage to different body parts, such as the immune system, nervous system, developmental system, and respiratory system.

4. PFOS

PFOS or Perfluorooctyl Sulfonate is yet another toxin or harmful chemical substance used to manufacture polyurethane foam mattresses. PFOS causes a host of brain disorders and slows down cognitive development. Besides this, the toxic chemical also causes significant damage to the reproductive, immune, and endocrine systems.

5. Solvents

Besides the chemical substances mentioned above, foam mattresses also contain a host of solvents that can be detrimental to health. These chemicals cause damage to the different organs, including the reproductive system, nervous system, respiratory system, liver, and kidneys.

6. VOC

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) are chemicals present in several products, especially building materials. Foam mattresses also contain VOCs, and these substances cause a host of conditions related to the eyes, kidneys, liver, respiratory system, and nervous system. Symptoms of inhaling VOC fumes may include headaches, nausea, and memory loss.

7. Flame Retardants

Flame retardants are another key chemical component used to manufacture foam mattresses. These are toxins known to cause various brain disorders, including learning disabilities, besides damage to the reproductive and nervous systems. Flame retardants also cause significant hormone disruptions, not to mention cancer and damage to the DNA.

Dangers of Polyurethane Fumes

You may think that foam mattresses are good products, but they can pose much danger to the household. Although it was supposed to be safe initially, the product is highly flammable, especially after several caught fire.

So, to ramp up the safety of mattresses and other household foam furniture, manufacturers started using flame retardants. However, users began experiencing many health issues primarily linked to the harmful toxins that these flame retardants released.

So, considering these factors, it would be better to avoid using foam mattresses or furniture, especially baby products.

Baby Products that Do Not Use Polyurethane Fumes

Foam products contain lots of harmful chemicals. So, if you ever feel that using them may not be safe for your baby or children, here are a few alternatives you can consider. These products don’t contain most of the chemicals used in foam-based products, if not all.

1. Animal Wool

Animal wool is naturally flame-resistant and doesn’t ignite as easily. So, if you are worried about the toxic or flammable nature of foam-based baby products, you can use animal wool-based products as alternatives. Moreover, wool doesn’t accumulate too much heat and is just enough to keep your baby warm as it sleeps.

Plus, it’s soft and spongy and doesn’t contain harmful chemicals, making it one of the best materials to use in pillows and mattresses.

2. Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is another baby-friendly product that offers some natural resistance to fire. So, you can use it for pillows and mattresses. However, while they are fire-resistant to a certain degree, they may contain harmful chemicals. So, check the label, and read the instructions, to find out if the one you bought contains chemicals detrimental to health before using it.

3. Coconut Coir

Coconut coir is also fire-retardant, making it one of the safest options for baby cribs. So, you can find them as part of several baby products such as cribs these days.

4. Sugarcane Fiber

Sugarcane fiber is also an eco-friendly, non-toxic material that you can use as part of your baby products. There is plenty of it available, so you don’t need to worry about running out of it.

5. Seagrass

Seagrasses can serve as great alternatives to polyurethane-based baby products, significantly when changing pads. You have plenty of shallow baskets made of seagrass that you can use to change diapers conveniently since they prevent the baby from rolling away.

6. Natural Latex

Though natural latex is chemical-free, you still ought to check the label and read the instructions, particularly for the materials used. Also, latex tends to overheat, and your baby may feel excessive heat when lying on it for prolonged periods. So, when using this material, be sure to check and confirm the substances used in it and keep your baby safe.

So, these materials are free from harmful chemicals and are, thus, baby-friendly. So, you can use any baby product made from animal wool, natural latex, coconut coir, sugarcane, and seagrass. Likewise, you can also use those made from natural wool or cotton, which are considered safe, free from harmful chemicals, and fire-resistant.

When choosing a baby-friendly product, always look for those free from harmful chemicals such as VOC. If you can’t find products void of VOC, try and look for those low on the dangerous substance. For instance, you could look for products with labels that say VOC-free, HAP-free, or Low VOC.

What Does All This Mean for Your Family?

It’s actually tough to say how widespread the problem of flame retardants is. It’s even hard to say how you, as a parent, should make consumer decisions based on this info.

Maybe it’s Not Such a Huge Problem After All?

Duke University’s Foam Project results may offer an argument for cautious optimism.

The project is bright light in the fight against harmful chemicals in foam. Through it, consumers can mail up to five foam samples per household to the lab. The lab then analyzes submitted samples for seven of the most common chemical flame retardants. 

Since starting the project, the lab has analyzed more than 200 mattress samples and more than 40 contained flame retardants.

In total, they have analyzed 2215 foam samples (at last update).

“Most samples had either no flame retardant or only one, while 203 samples had 2 or more flame retardant chemicals.”

Foam Project

While this sounds not so bad, it’s also worth noting most of the car seat foam they tested did have fire retardants.

Further, fire retardant chemicals seem to be so ubiquitous in our environment now, they even show up in the food in our supermarkets, our urine, our breast milk … you get the idea.

The Case for an Abundance of Caution

Babies and children are particularly vulnerable to flame retardant chemicals.

Children are most vulnerable because their bodies and brains are developing, and they are often more exposed to flame retardant-laden products, such as carpets, toys and other items. Generally, people are exposed to these chemicals through household dust, contaminated food, air or water.

The Guardian

Exposure to flame retardants is associated with a number of potential adverse outcomes.

Dr. Bass, Board-Certified Internist and Pediatrician in Shreveport, La.

You can decrease your child’s risk by:

  • Washing both you and your child’s hand frequently
  • Use a wet cloth to dust
  • Use a wet mop or vacuum with a HEPA filter
  • Prevent your child from chewing on products that may contain flame retardants.
  • Repair tears to upholstered furniture and other products with foam.

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