Rock-a-bye Baby, Chemicals and All: the Health Risks Posed by Crib Mattresses

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission tightened standards and safety regulations for cribs earlier in 2011, but you may still want to think twice before you tuck in your baby at night.  While the Commission required that cribs be sturdier, it is actually the mattress that may be putting children’s health in jeopardy.  A 2011 study conducted by Clean and Healthy New York, an organization promoting safer environments, reported that of the 190 crib mattresses investigated, 72% contained one or more chemicals that have been linked to health risks.[1]

A mattress is usually composed of four parts: the core, a layer of padding, a layer of fire-resistant material, and a cover made from fabric.  Each of these four layers is made from materials that may contain potentially harmful chemicals.  Clean and Healthy New York investigated polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based plastic used in the cover of mattresses to make them waterproof and bacteria-resistant, and polyurethane foam, which is used in the core of mattresses and is also petroleum-based.  Although PVC is widely used in household products, it is one of the most toxic types of plastic.  In fact, the chemicals that make up PVC plastic have been known to leach into food and pose significant threats to the environment.  PVC is made from chlorine and other chemicals that can cause cancer, including phthalates that may also cause asthma or allergies.[2] Polyurethane foam is dangerous because over time it breaks up into small dust-like particles that once inhaled can potentially cause asthma, skin irritations, or cancer.

Despite these risks, the part of the mattress that is of greatest concern is the fire-resistant layer.

As a result of new standards for mattresses set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2007, mattress manufacturers have taken measures to make mattresses more fire-resistant.[3]Unfortunately, there are few restrictions on the types of fire-resistant materials that can be used in mattresses.  This means that mattress companies can use chemicals with health risks.  Of the 28 mattress manufacturers that Clean and Healthy New York reviewed, 14 of them either used potentially harmful chemicals in their mattresses or refused to disclose their chemicals.[1] The most dangerous chemical compounds used were polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a class of halogenated flame retardants (HFRs), which are designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as possible human carcinogens[4] that may pose risks to the immune system or thyroid gland.[4],[5]

Figuring out which mattresses are safest for children and which to avoid can be difficult. Parents may have a hard time finding out what chemicals lurk in their baby’s mattress because manufacturers sometimes make labels hard to find or “green wash” their products when marketing them by deceptively emphasizing that environmental standards were used.  While laws require mattress companies to place labels directly on the product to describe the materials and chemicals used, the labels are often hidden from consumers, and mattresses are instead presented as safe and environmentally-friendly.  Additionally, mattress manufacturers attempt to conceal the health risks posed by chemicals in their mattresses by advertising or inventing certifications from trade organizations that support their products rather than evaluating the possible risks to consumers.  These certifications seem to focus on the manufacturers’ attention to safety and the environment while masking the potential health risks for consumers.  While PVC and polyurethane foam are widely-used chemicals, their presence in crib mattresses is worrisome given an infant’s small size, vulnerability, and the amount of time spent sleeping.  While the average adult hopes to have 8 hours of sleep a night, infants usually spend 12-14 hours sleeping each day.[6] Furthermore, infants and young children have been shown to be at greater risk from environmental toxins because their bodies are still developing rapidly and their premature kidneys and liver may not detoxify substances in the same ways adults can.[7]

Tips for Buying Safer Crib Mattresses

In light of these concerns, here are a few tips when purchasing a crib mattress:

  • Third-party certifications that are developed by government agencies or non-profits are the most trustworthy.  Clean and Healthy New York has compiled a list of legitimate certifications to look for.
  • These certifications are often only for parts of the mattress, not the whole product, so carefully examine certification documents as well as the labels.  If a mattress’s labels are hidden, visit the mattress company’s website or contact the company for information about the mattress’s contents when researching which product to buy.

Support Legislation that Keeps Families Safe from Dangerous Chemicals 

The best way to ensure better standards for crib mattresses is to show support for policies that safeguard children’s health.  Manufacturers respond to consumers, and consumers are making it clear that they want toxic-free mattresses and full disclosure about the materials and chemicals found in them. If you are worried about the toxic chemicals that are currently unregulated in a range of household products, there is pending legislation in Washington, D.C. that addresses this important issue.  Senators Frank Lautenberg and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with 27 other senators, are championing The Safe Chemicals Act of 2013,[8] which attempts to modernize the Toxic Substance Controls Act (TSCA) that currently governs the use of chemicals in consumer goods.

The Safe Chemicals Act of 2013 would:

  • Require chemical companies to provide the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with more health and safety data on the chemicals they produce
  • Require the EPA to focus resources on the chemicals that are most likely to cause harm
  • Expedite action to reduce the risk from chemicals of highest concern
  • Promote efforts towards innovative chemistry that is green and safe

To take action and support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013, visit the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families website for more information.

Supporting legislation that eliminates the use of dangerous chemicals is effective! In November 2013, California responded to the urging of environmental advocates and consumers by adopting new guidelines based on the latest research. The new guidelines require upholstery and fabric covers to be smolder proof, a new test that simulates fires from a lit cigarette. The changes are meant to more accurately reflect the situations that usually lead to fires in homes, and make it possible for manufacturers to use lower amounts of less toxic chemicals. As a consequence, manufacturers will use different, and presumably safer, flame retardants for products sold in California and across the country. The adopted changes will go into effect in January 2015.[9]

The Bottom Line

Despite some risks, a crib that is free of pillows, thick blankets or other objects that could cause suffocation is still the safest place for an infant to sleep. When infants sleep with their parents they are at risk for the parents rolling over them and causing them harm. To view more crib safety tips, please visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Crib Safety website for tips and videos on how to put your baby to sleep safely.

All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff. 

  1.  Clean and Healthy New York. The Mattress Matters: Protecting Babies from Toxic Chemicals While They Sleep. New York: Clean and Healthy New York and American Sustainable Business Council; 2011. Print.
  2.  Jaakkola JJK, Knight TL. The Role of Exposure to Phthalates from Polyvinyl Chloride Products in the Development of Asthma and Allergies: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Environ Health Perspect. 2008;116(7):845-853.
  3. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Standard for the Flammability (Open Flame) of Mattress Sets: Final Rule. March 2006. Accessed January 13, 2012.
  4. US Department of Health and Human Services. Toxicological Profile for Polybrominated Biphenyls and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers. September 2004. Accessed January 13, 2012.
  5. Zhou T, Taylor MM, DeVito MJ, Crofton KM. Developmental Exposure to Brominated Diphenyl Ethers Results in Thyroid Hormone Disruption. Toxicological Sciences. 2002;66(1):105-116.
  6. Mindell JA, Owens JA. A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep: Diagnosis and Management of Sleep Problems. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer and Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2010. Print.
  7. Bearer CF. Environmental Health Hazards: How Children Are Different from Adults. The Future of Children: Critical Issues for Children and Youths. 1995;5(2):11-26.
  8. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2013. Accessed April 19, 2013.
  9. California Department of Consumer Affairs: Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation. Proposed Regulations. Accessed November 22, 2013, from]