A Chemical Romance – With Your Mattress

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Nowadays the whole world taking notice of the ingredients and chemicals that are in the fabric of commonly used items. A major industrial firm lived by the slogan "Better Living Through Chemistry" — until it had to stop once the public raised the alarm over how chemical compounds affect their health and the environment.

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It has become a norm for people to be wary of any product tagged “synthetic” or “chemical.” However, this is pushing it beyond the limit, and it’s not addressing the real issue. For example, and to be frank, any substance is a chemical by definition: it is composed of chemicals and therefore has a chemical name. These substances, if called by their chemical names, would sound intimidating. For instance, imagine calling table salt “sodium chloride” — instead of salt– as we are all used to, or calling water dihydrogen monoxide instead of water. Every substance, plant, organism or animal has a scientific name that differs than its regular name.

The naming of things is not the real problem. The proper question should be: “Which chemicals are safe?” Usually, when someone asks that question, we expect an answer that involves artificial, engineered chemicals or some natural elements used in certain ways.

The use of chemicals in bedding — that is, mattresses, sheets, beds, blankets, and pillows — is either as additive or constituent. The chemicals that make its way in the bedding is known as constituent chemicals; when chemicals get added to mattress or bedding components to achieve a result, then these supplements are known as additive chemicals. Chemicals could be added to make one or more of the following purposes: fragrance, temperature control, microbe inhibition, coloring, and flame retardation.

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Most people are usually concerned about the chemicals foams are made of most notably polyurethane and memory foam. People also show concerns about synthetic rubber/latex, but it does not measure up to how much concern there are about memory foam and polyurethane.

Polyurethanes are polymers used to make memory foam. The polyurethane polymers are chains of fatty molecules also known as polyols. Initially, Petroleum was the source of the polyols. Processing the polyols makes them form links of long chains, and then other chemicals are added to turn them into the foam. Memory foam is formed when other chemicals are added to polyurethane.

There are two primary concerns here: foam processing and out-gassing. The handling of foam produces emissions that transfer into the environment in no negligible amount. However, government regulations and complaints from the public has forced manufacturers to reduce the environmental impact of the processing. A lot of people are against the use of fossil fuels, and their reasons are the effects of drilling for crude oil, transporting and refining it. Out-gassing, on the other hand, is when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released from the foam in the bedroom. Some of these compounds may be dangerous to health or have bad odors. Plant oils are used for polyols in more mattress foams, but this was just a tiny percentage of the composition.

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Some mattress manufacturers claim that some, sometimes even all their foam are made of plant-based components. However, no reliable source has ever verified or confirmed these allegations, as the foam is not a part of nature. How toxic additive chemicals are have also called for serious concerns most especially the chemicals that are used to comply with federal flammability standards such as 16 CFR Parts 1632 and 1633 of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) codes.

Until 2009, preventing foam mattresses from flames was done using polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs.) This method is no longer being practiced because there are now fabric fire barriers which protect the foams and prevent the propagation of flame. Some flame retardants are made of wool, which is natural but relatively expensive.

To protect foams from exploding using cheaper methods, a lot of companies use boric acid powder in the fabric, which is usually cotton. Boric acid powder is, of course, toxic, so to meet the open-flame standard, they add antimony. The problem with this cheaper approach is the level of toxicity that the combination of antimony and boric acid is leaving: these chemicals will eventually find their way to the surface of the mattress.

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A less toxic or non-toxic alternative is rayon infused with silica. The silica causes the fiber to soften and ball up when exposed to flame, thus stopping the spread of the fire. Some people are concerned that silica is an irritant and that it might escape and cause respiratory problems. Others are concerned about the environmental impact of manufacturing rayon from wood fibers.

Apart from fire retardants, customers are usually worried about the application of chemicals for other purposes, such as cover fabrics sizing and the production of performance materials. The truth is that even though the industrial process will not have a noticeable impact on the majority of consumers, there are nonetheless some individuals who are very sensitive to chemicals. For a chemically sensitive person, or anyone concerned with being in contact with toxic chemicals on a regular basis, an organic mattress is probably the best solution.