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Polyurethane Foam Might Just Be a Toxic Nightmare

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If you’ve found yourself shopping for a crib mattress 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.

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.

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 several dozen children’s and infant mattresses. Refreshingly, they found only a small percentage of the products contained the flame retardant chemicals tested for. 

In total, they have analyzed 2215 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

And there’s no getting around it: the health effects of some flame retardant chemicals are dire.

Because of this, there’s certainly a case to be made for doing everything you can to protect your children from these chemicals.

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