“You spend a third of your life on your mattress so if you can avoid breathing in chemicals all that time, it’s probably a good idea,” says Jeffrey Klein, owner of Sleep Etc. in Norwalk and Stamford. There are two ways that chemicals can make their way into mattresses: the first is in the synthetic foams and materials that make the mattress itself, and the other is the flame-retardant chemicals sprayed onto mattresses.
Klein transitioned into the eco-friendly mattress industry about 10 years ago when his daughter was born. “My wife started buying organic food because she was worried about our daughter being exposed to tiny amounts of chemicals and pesticides over time,” he says. “This way of thinking made sense to me, and having already been in the mattress industry, I knew the conventional practices did not hold up to this natural philosophy.”
Around that same time, the fire standards in the industry were becoming more strict and manufacturers had to pass a much harder burn test. The way most of the larger manufacturers dealt with this was with heavier chemical applications. The commonly used chemicals were and are known carcinogens, banned from use in food products. Klein decided he did not want his daughter or his clients on a conventional mattress.
“When people questioned it, they’d say ‘look, it’s not food, it’s a mattress.’But tests have shown these chemicals are indeed absorbing into the body,” says Klein. Though there are no official studies deeming the mattresses unsafe, the chemicals used on them have been linked to skin irritation, learning and memory deficits, cancers, heart and kidney damage, respiratory issues, and birth defects.
Consumers are also increasingly concerned about the fumes from the synthetic materials, particularly some of the memory foam mattresses on the market. Many people have described a “new mattress smell” upon receiving a new mattress, especially ones that have been vacuum sealed, packaged, and shipped. Klein explains that what’s happening is off-gassing as a result of the breakdown of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the foam, which can release formaldehyde, benzene, methylene chloride, toluene, trichloroethane, naphthalene, perfluorocarbons, and/or other chemicals into the air.
Because of the free shipping and free returns, many people are skipping the trip to their local mattress retailer and choosing online ordering; consequently, they are skipping the ability to test a range of mattresses for optimal support and comfort. With the phenomenon of shipped mattresses, chemicals are more toxic than ever. Once packaged, the chemicals have a chance to build up and are released more potently upon opening. The retailers themselves often recommend airing out a mattress in a well-ventilated area for three to seven days before use. As with the fire retardant chemicals, there are no proven health risks of sleeping on these synthetic materials, but the intensified emissions remain a concern.
Health- and eco-minded individuals are turning to natural alternatives. Sleep, Etc., has a wide range of 100 percent natural and organic beds, plus more traditional beds that do not use questionable compounds. “If someone comes in and wants a completely organic mattress, I can provide them with a large selection of beds made from organic and sustainably-sourced materials,” says Klein. Nearly all of the beds available at the showroom are designed and built for Sleep, Etc., at factories in New Jersey and Maryland.
Materials used in production include wool—a natural fire retardant—sourced in New Zealand, organic cotton sourced in the United States, latex made in Connecticut, and wood from Forest Stewardship Council-certified sources in North America. For those who have their heart set on memory foam, Klein provides selections that are more eco-friendly and health-focused than conventional. Their models are about 50 percent natural, and the petroleum-based oils in the mattress are replaced by soybean oil.
“We are committed to being transparent, and show our clients exactly what is in each and every mattress,” Klein says. Many major mattress companies are not transparent, and are actually misleading customers with a practice called greenwashing, he continues. This allows them to present an environmentally-responsible image, without having to commit to the costs and efforts of being environmentally responsible. Often a mattress will have explicit advertising that the bed is made with organic cotton; however, the entire bed is made with the toxic chemicals and synthetic materials, save for one layer of organic cotton on the surface. Other mattresses may claim to be made from wool, cashmere or silk, but by law only five percent of it needs to include these materials to be labeled as such. As a result, the bulk of the material is typically synthetic. Others will have absolutely no natural materials at all, but use “natural” or “inspired by nature” repeatedly in marketing efforts.
“The overwhelming majority of people are trying to live a healthier lifestyle, and it’s safe to say organic mattresses are the fastest growing segment in the natural market,” says Klein. “A lot of my customers come in and know just as much as I do about all of this. They’ve done their research, and are looking to make a change for their well-being, their families’ well-being, and the well-being of the earth.”