What to Look for When Buying a Crib Mattress

This is the second part of our discussion with Dr. Brandon E. Boor, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Purdue University. The first article is available here .

When Dr. Brandon E. Boor and his colleagues tested 20 new and used crib mattresses purchased in 2011 or earlier, they detected two classes of chemicals associated with endocrine disruption and harm to the reproductive system and development: flame retardants and phthalates.

Crib mattresses usually have waterproof covers made of vinyl, a type of plastic that typically needs plasticizers to make it soft and flexible. Phthalates, chemicals that can harm the reproductive system and increase the risk of asthma and allergies, have been long used as plasticizers. Since 2009, federal regulations have prohibited the use of three harmful phthalates in children’s toys and other items children could use.

Boor’s team detected two banned phthalates in mattress covers made in 2011. Manufacturers have begun switching to alternatives, but Boor remains concerned.

“There is very little information about the replacement plasticizer chemicals used in crib mattress covers and other children’s products today, so we cannot be certain that these replacements are entirely safe for children’s health," he said. "I feel that if one phthalate or non-phthalate plasticizer is banned, a new one will be introduced for which toxicological data are limited, and the cycle would continue.”

Waterproof covers are essential for crib mattresses, as fungi can grow inside mattress and body fluids increase this problem, which Boor’s recent work highlights. He recommends that families stay away from vinyl crib mattress covers because of concerns about phthalates, and instead consider other options including polyethylene or wool covers.

“We need innovative research to come up with manufacturing practices and ingredients that put children’s health first and ensure that we don’t end up with a new toxic chemical,” Boor said.

For example, in response to public outcry about the unnecessary use of toxic flame retardants in furniture, mattresses and other everyday home items, there has been a change in how product flammability standards are met.

“There is now a real movement on the state and federal level to reduce Americans' exposure to flame retardants in furniture, foam and other items, because research shows that these chemicals accumulate in the bodies of people, increase the risk of cancer and can harm hormones,” Boor said.

Testing crib mattresses made before 2011, researchers identified two types of flame retardants: brominated pentaBDE, which is now banned because of reproductive and developmental toxicity, but is still found in older furniture and mattresses; and triphenyl phosphate, or TPP, an endocrine-disrupting chemical that is also found in nail polish. Many manufacturers are now using barriers in crib mattresses in lieu of halogenated chemicals added to the foam, as reported in 2013 by Clean and Healthy New York, a nonprofit research organization.

“I would advise parents to look for products that contain no added chemical flame retardants, and demand that manufacturers clearly list this information on the label,” Boor said.

And the concern is not just flame retardants or phthalates. Boor said deciphering what chemical additives are used in crib mattresses on the market today is a difficult task.

“I think that all baby products, including crib mattresses, should be sold with a list of all chemical additives used and the rate at which they off-gas to the air – essentially a ‘Nutritional Facts’ for chemicals,” he said. “Based on my research, I believe that full transparency about chemicals used for making mattresses and any byproducts of manufacturing is essential for protecting children’s health.”

For additional tips on air quality in your baby’s room, visit EWG’s Healthy Living: Home Guide and watch EWG’s video on mattresses and crib mattresses.

For more information about Boor’s research, follow him on Twitter


Updated on May 30, 2018

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