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Government-Mandated Flame-Retardant Mattresses

Two days ago we received delivery of a new mattress. Upon initially lying down to go to sleep on it, I detected a strange odor and reasoned that it must be emanating from either the new sheets, the new mattress cover, or the new mattress, but was too tired to think much about it. The odor became increasingly bothersome throughout the night, and in the morning I determined that it was most likely coming from the mattress itself.

Some web searching suggested that this was not unusual, and that common wisdom was to let the mattress air out for a day or two (or four) before sleeping on it. This was the second mattress we had purchased from the same shop, and nobody had mentioned anything about this to us. The first mattress, though, was left unused for several weeks before we moved into the house, so it likely had time to air out on its own.

My web searching also turned up some unexpected information on the potential toxicity of mattresses.

In 1972, the United States federal government decided to help prevent burning cigarettes set mattresses ablaze by issuing 16 CFR Part 1632, Requirements for Mattresses and Mattress Pads. Accompanied by a prescribed test procedure, this government mandate required mattress manufacturers to construct their mattresses to be able to endure limited exposure to burning cigarettes without catching on fire themselves. Since traditional mattress materials were not inherently flame-retardant, manufacturers complied by adding flame-retardant chemicals.

In 2006, the government decided that guarding against burning cigarettes was insufficient, and expanded their mattress construction criteria to include guarding against various open flames in 16 CFR Part 1633, Standard for the Flammability (Open Flame) of Mattress Sets. The new test criteria involves exposing the mattress to open flame generated by a burner device for a total of 30 minutes. (Details are listed within 16 CFR Part 1633 itself.) Manufacturers complied to this demand of enduring a half-hour of fire by adding yet more flame-retardant chemicals.

So our mattresses are very unlikely to engulf us in flames. But what about the chemicals being added to the mattresses? Are these safe for us to sleep on night after night? Since the government cares so much about us not setting our beds on fire, surely they would have interest in what chemicals are employed to fire-proof the mattresses?

They did conduct some thorough research on the extent to which the various chemicals used in mattress construction could be absorbed by its users, but when it comes to actually making a decision on what chemicals go into the bed, they leave that up to the mattress manufacturers. The 16 CFR Part 1633 Questions & Answers document explains:

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure that its products do not present an unreasonable risk to consumers. Thus, manufacturers should conduct the appropriate exposure testing and risk assessment to ensure that any new products that are placed on the market are not hazardous substances.

Some of the chemicals involved are blatantly harmful in large quantities. But are the quantities conveyed through a mattress large enough to be problematic? Should we be concerned? There have been reports of people experiencing a variety of unexpected symptoms after getting a new 16 CFR Part 1633-compliant mattress, but there seem to be plenty more people who have never noticed anything wrong at all. We ourselves slept on a Part 1633-compliant mattress for five years without even realizing it.

If you want to avoid these flame-retardant chemicals in your mattress, there are ways around it. Standard off-the-shelf mattresses are required by federal law to be flame-retardant, but with a prescription from your doctor you can have one special-made that does not use flame-retardant chemicals. (One of our family doctors opined that there are lots of other things more useful to do for the overall health of your body than to get a chemically untreated mattress.) You could also buy unassembled mattress components and make your own mattress. At least one retailer sells beds that keep the chemical treatment in a sealed and removable portion of the bed.

In the end, we can thank the federal government for creating potentially-questionable regulations that enable us to continue to sleep while smoking cigarettes and enjoying sundry other forms of open flame…

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