Your Mattress Could Be a Health and Environmental Nightmare: Here Are 4 Safe, Eco-Friendly Options

Personal Health

The average person spends a third of their life sleeping, though few put much thought into where they lay their heads. As long as our mattresses are comfortable, not much else matters, right? Not so fast, say environmental and health experts, who warn that the chemicals used in some mattresses could be making us sick.  

Most modern mattresses are made from polyurethane foam, a petroleum product that may release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into indoor air, creating an acrid, plastic odor and prompting allergic reactions like skin irritation or difficulty breathing. Some mattresses also contain potentially hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene and naphthalene, although at very low levels.

Flame retardants pose additional concerns. In 2007, the Consumer Product Safety Commission mandated that all mattresses sold in the United States be able to withstand 30 minutes of exposure to an open flame, but several flame retardant chemicals have been pulled off the market since then due to potential health problems. The commission issued its latest warning in September, advising people, particularly children and pregnant women, to avoid products containing flame retardants known as organohalogens, which have been linked to a host of health problems including cancer and decreased IQ in children.

“But advocates and scientists noted the chemical industry has a long history of replacing harmful flame retardants with chemically similar compounds that later were found to be just as worrisome, if not more so,” reported Michael Hawthorne of the Chicago Tribune.

While certain flame retardants have been definitively linked to health problems, it’s extremely difficult to measure the long-term effects of exposure to the low levels of other chemicals present in mattresses.

It’s the dose that makes the poison,” Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University, told Mother Jones. “If they’re not getting out, maybe it’s not a problem — but we don’t know. There are plenty of lab studies that show that these compounds are harmful. It’s just a question of what levels people are exposed to.”

Luckily, the market is rising to meet consumer demand for healthier and more sustainable alternatives.

"Environmental concerns have created a new market of organic sleep products in the last several years," Richard Shane, creator of the insomnia treatment known as the Sleep Easily Method, told Shape Magazine. Market research firm Technavio expects the organic mattress market to grow by more than 12 percent by 2019, much faster than the mattress industry at large, so shoppers have plenty of options—and the following tips can help you navigate the market like a pro when it’s time to replace your old mattress.

Labels to watch for

Sustainability standards and certifications are booming in popularity because they assure shoppers that a company’s claims are verified by a third party. For mattresses, standards related to textile makeup and air quality can help guide your search.

UL’s GreenGuard certification is the holy grail for indoor air quality. Less than 1 percent of all mattresses on the market have passed GreenGuard’s rigorous standards for low chemical emissions. For verification on organic claims, look for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS).

Don’t forget to recycle!

Americans send nearly 20 million mattresses to landfills each year, where they take up an average 23 cubic feet of space and expand those trash mountains ever further. Even worse, many mattresses are illegally dumped, creating an eyesore as well as an environmental blight.

But mattress recycling is a tough business. “[Mattresses] are bulky and not easily hauled or compacted. They are very durably sewn together, so you can’t just take them apart by turning a few screws,” Ryan Trainer, president of the Mattress Recycling Council (MRC), told Waste360 earlier this year. And the "limited value of used mattress materials” makes it even more difficult for mattress recycling to be a sustainable business.

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image credit: Flickr/Kamal Hamid

California, Connecticut and Rhode Island mandate mattress recycling and offer statewide programs through MRC to ensure proper disposal. Trainer said he believes similar laws are being considered in other states, but consumers have other options in the meantime.

Furniture giant Ikea made things a whole lot easier with its national mattress recycling program launched at the start of this month. The company will now recycle mattresses of any brand that are collected during a new Ikea mattress delivery or dropped off at any Ikea store. Don’t live near an Ikea? Use recycling searches like MRC’s Bye-Bye Mattress or Earth911 to find an option near you.

Brands to try

1. Avocado Green Mattress

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image credit: Mark Abrials for Avocado Green Mattress

Avocado Green Mattress is taking social media by storm with its clever branding and sustainable product line. Its namesake mattresses swap out polyurethane foam for sustainably sourced Dunlop latex, certified by eco-Institut, and GOTS-certified organic cotton. The company also uses natural New Zealand wool as a barrier fabric to meet fire safety standards without chemical flame retardants.    

Each Avocado Green Mattress is made in California by workers paid a living wage and certified by GreenGuard for indoor air quality. Although more affordable than some latex mattresses, they’re still a bit pricey. But they come with a 25-year warranty, and Avocado offers financing starting at 0 percent APR.  

Shop the Avocado Green Mattress line.

Price: $959 for a twin size to $1,599 for a California king.

2. Colgate

This Atlanta-based brand specializes in mattresses for children that come with a host of health- and eco-friendly features. Colgate pioneered the use of NaturesNest, a spun matrix fabric made from recycled materials that is 100-percent recyclable. It also makes its own “eco-foam” from plant-based oils, rather than petroleum derivatives, and swaps out flame retardant chemicals for nontoxic barrier fabrics.

Browse Colgate’s GreenGuard-certified mattresses or shop the whole line.

Price: $129.99 for a crib size to $769.99 for a full.

3. Naturepedic

It’s hard not to be impressed by Naturepedic’s sustainability story. The company was founded by an environmental engineer with a background in chemical safety, and its organic mattresses are made by Amish craftsmen at a GOTS-certified factory in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Naturepedic’s mattresses for adults and children are comprised of an organic cotton-encased spring structure and cushioning made from organic latex. Organic wool provides temperature regulation and natural fire protection, and it wicks away moisture to stave off bacteria.  

Browse Naturepedic’s GreenGuard-certified mattresses or shop the whole line.

Price: $259 for a crib size to $3,199 for a California king.

4. Tuft and Needle

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Tuft and Needle is one of a wave of trendy, direct-to-consumer companies that deliver mattresses straight to the customer’s door, in a small and easily luggable box. As one might expect, that compressed mattress is indeed made from polyurethane foam, but it comes with a heap of green credentials and doting consumer reviews that are worth a second look.  

All Tuft and Needle mattresses are GreenGuard-certified for indoor air quality. They also bear the CertiPUR-US seal, which measures foam products for a high standard of physical performance, content, indoor emissions and environmental stewardship. The cover material met Oeko-Tex’s highest standard for chemical safety. And each mattress is made in California by workers paid a living wage. Not too shabby.

Shop the Tuft and Needle line.

Price: $325 for a twin size to $700 for a California king.

Have any recommendations for safe, eco-friendly mattresses? Share them in the comments.

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