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Dynamic Chiropractic >> Ergonomic Supports & Pillows

Dissecting Toxic Links to Sleep

By Kenna S. Ducey-Clark, DC and Shawn Clark

Sleep is a required need to sustain life, and quality sleep is critical to vital and abundant health. One of the most overlooked relationships in acquiring quality sleep is the role that the mattress plays.

Most people, including healthcare professionals, have little understanding of what qualifies as a good sleeping surface, and even more concerning, they lack the knowledge of the materials that are used in making those surfaces. Shockingly, the evolution of the modern mattress has moved in a direction that is both less supportive of our physical structural needs and toward the use of more synthetic materials that on a physiological level can unknowingly expose the sleeper to potentially harmful toxicities.

Sleeping disorders in the U.S. are growing at an alarming rate and have been labeled as epidemic. But little has been done to look at the correlation between such disorders and the root cause of the dysfunction. Dissecting the toxic links to sleep can be both confusing and astounding, but necessary for the well-informed DC to arm their knowledge base and better help their patients.

Evolution of the Modern Mattress

In the first half of the 20th century, mattresses were primarily made using steel springs for support and cotton batting for cushioning. Polyurethane foam was created in Germany in 1937, and began to replace cotton in the 1950s. Polyurethane was much less expensive than cotton, even in that time, thus the trend to use such materials was embraced.

Polyurethane foam is made from petroleum-based products, which is known to emit volatile organic compounds, and exposure to such has been linked to respiratory irritation and other health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the past 30 years, the cotton used in mattress production has been completely replaced by the synthetic foams, as well as some of the springs. The first incarnation of synthetic foams was found in the pillow-top mattress, which fell out of favor because the foams often degraded, losing formation and becoming known for quickly forming body impressions.

The current state of mattress evolution uses combinations of synthetic foams (polyurethane, memory, latex, foamed gel) to create comfort and support alternatives. But as these new materials have grown in popularity, sleep problems have also increased. Most consumers are unaware that the same material pool, composed of synthetic, petrochemical-based foams, is used by nearly all of today's mattress manufacturers.

In 2007, the U.S. Federal Government mandated that every mattress manufacturer include a fire barrier in the mattress so that it would self-extinguish if it caught on fire. However, it did not mandate what type of materials should be used to accomplish the self-extinguishing, or require disclosure of said ingredients used to the consumer. The least expensive flame-retardants used by major retail mattress companies are liquid sprays containing chemicals such as PCDE's (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and Boric Acid, both known to have carcinogen properties. Furthermore, in the last decade, the mattress industry has moved towards a softer mattress, providing less structural support to the sleeper, which inertly results in the increased incidence of tossing and turning and thus robbing the sleeper of less time in the needed deep levels of non-REM III and IV. The support component of some mattresses used today has replaced the steel spring with a foam core, water and air. All three alternative forms of support are thought to be inferior to the good old-fashioned steel spring.

Toxic Mattress Materials

Most mattresses sold today contain some polyurethane foam and many contain specialty foams such as latex or memory foam, which consistently break down and release chemicals. The most common toxic materials used in making a mattress include petrochemicals, polyurethane, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), formaldehyde, antimony trioxide, phthalates and boric acid. These chemicals are used for the foam fillers, material adhesives and for water-resistance. Most are used to make the mattress flame retardant, per federal law, causing mattress toxicity to increase. All these chemicals individually give off their own noxious fumes, commonly referred to as off-gassing. Sleepers may report smelling the fumes when the mattress is first bought, which eventually ceases; however, although the off-gas smell no longer is detectable, toxins are still continuously being released and inhaled by the sleeper.


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