Phthalates are in many products but mattresses may be the worst place for them because we spend so much time in bed.
We tend to think that products manufactured in the United States are safe. Many consumers are unaware that some products have not been researched and that they are allowed to be used until they are proven unhealthy. Sometimes it is simply that no one has done the research to prove that a new product or chemical causes adverse health benefits.
In other cases, the research isn’t done because we don’t have the ability to measure the presence of the chemical in our bodies. Developing a way to test for its presence is the first step in the research process.
There are products contained in adult mattresses that are known to be hazardous but because the research is not yet done, they are allowed to be used. When research focuses on the effects on babies, the results aren’t always used to also ban the harmful substances in products sold for adult use.
Phthalates are an additive used in plastic products that has become pervasive in our environment. In the past, it was assumed that exposure occurred when they were breathed in or ingested. New evidence suggests that Phthalates can be absorbed through our skin.
It is important to know that the research isn’t all in—some phthalates were added to the Canadian list of substances where risks should be managed as recently as 2017, and thorough research on some is not yet completed. That means that just because a Phthalates isn’t on the list of harmful substances doesn’t mean it is safe. When it is possible to avoid them because alternatives known to be healthy or, at the very least, not suspected of being a potential environmental contaminant are available, that is the wisest course of action.
If the product is flexible, pliable, or has elasticity, it may contain Phthalates because they are used to add those qualities to plastics. They are sometimes referred to as plasticizers. Waterproof mattress protectors are often made of vinyl which can contain phthalates.
“Children’s toy” is “a consumer product designed or intended by the manufacturer for a child 12 years of age or younger for use by the child when the child plays.”
“child care article” is “a consumer product designed or intended by the manufacturer to facilitate sleep or the feeding of children age 3 and younger, or to help such children with sucking or teething.”
Crib mattresses containing certain types of Phthalates are banned but they are not banned in adult mattresses and mattress pads, encasements, and pillow covers despite the risk to the child from the mother’s exposure during pregnancy. Also, only Phthalates for which there is definitive evidence of harm, not simply suspected or the potential of harm, are banned in crib mattresses.
How does exposure occur?
Phthalates can be breathed in, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Bisphenol A, Phthalates, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers are additives used in the production of plastics. Phthalates are commonly found in:
What are the health implications of exposure to Phthalates
There are potential health implications, including disruption of the endocrine system.
The endocrine system performs critical functions in your body. It primarily deals with hormones and your glans which we tend to think of in a much narrower way than we should. You can think of hormones as the body’s communication system. Hormones affect our development, immune response, stress responses, weight, moods, reproduction, and metabolism. If you want to learn more about the widespread influence of hormones on your health, this video provides a fast-paced overview:
Phthalates can be endocrine disruptors.
What are the health implications of exposure to Phthalates to unborn children?
Some of the more recent research has explored the links between a mother’s exposure to toxic endocrine disruptors and the health outcomes of the children they bear by measuring biological samples of the mother before, during, and after pregnancy. The research indicates that maternal exposure to these substances has an effect on both the cardiac and metabolic outcomes, including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, that their children experience throughout their lives.
Phthalates are banned in crib mattresses, but the damage can occur long before your baby can be put in a crib. The mother’s exposure to Phthalates during pregnancy can have life-long effects on the child’s health.
Most people are aware that obesity is epidemic. It is most often blamed on lifestyle factors such as diet and lack of exercise in the modern world. A journal article published in Reproductive Toxicology titled Metabolism disrupting chemicals and metabolic disorders suggests there may be more insidious causes, including Phthalates.
“There is now considerable evidence that other environmental factors may contribute to the rapid increase in the incidence of these metabolic diseases.”
Phthalates are a family of industrial chemicals that have been used for a variety of purposes.
Much of the research found strong, consistent indications that the presence of Phthalates causes problems.
At birth, potential long-term reproductive effects from the mother’s exposure to Phthalates can be measured using a non-invasive measurement referred to as the anogenital distance which is basically the distance between the baby’s genitalia and their anus. Women who had high concentrations of first trimester Phthalates in their urine were ten times more likely to give birth to sons with signs of negative reproductive outcomes.
We spend about one-third of our lives asleep. That means that we are exposed to SVOCs and VOCs in our mattress about 1/3 of every day. If our mattress contains unhealthy materials, we have plenty of time to be exposed to significant levels of them.
When we bring products into our home that contain phthalates, the compound will release SVOCs that contribute to indoor pollution. In our homes, dust can be contaminated with chemicals from a variety of sources, including our mattresses and furniture.
We’ve only had the ability to study the effects of exposure to Phthalates for about twenty years. Prior to that, we didn’t have the ability to test for its presence in our bodies so we couldn’t conduct research to determine its effects.
The research on mattress safety has concentrated on crib mattresses where babies sleep but research has found that the mother’s exposure to Phthalates affects her unborn child’s health across the child’s lifespan. Additionally, many families co-sleep with their infants which means babies are sleeping on adult mattresses.
The mother’s exposure to Phthalates and other SVOCs can cause epigenetic changes in their child which means the child’s genetic code changes as a result of her exposure. It is much easier to create lifelong medical problems and problems that cannot be cured when they originate during gestation. This makes the mother’s exposure to Phthalates during pregnancy a significant health concern.
The healthiest mattresses for adults are latex mattresses or hybrid latex mattresses that are made from natural materials and use hydrated silica or wool for fire protection. We’ve reviewed some of the best latex and hybrid latex mattresses. If you are going to have a baby or co-sleep with your children, it is important to consider not only the potential effect the crib mattress has on your baby’s health but also the effect your mattress will have on your baby before birth and while nursing or co-sleeping.
Your baby will spend at least half their time sleeping during their first few years of life. A healthy sleeping environment that considers what their skin is exposed to and what they might ingest, or inhale, can help your baby stay healthy during childhood and during their entire life.
A wool mattress pad like the Holy Lamb Organic Moisture Mattress may seem expensive but compare it to one or two co-pays at the doctor’s office because your baby becomes ill from a mattress that contains unhealthy materials and it immediately becomes apparent that the wool mattress is the better bargain.
You can opt for a crib mattress that contains Polypropylene plastics which is safe for your child but not good for the overall environment, used in the less expensive Naturepedic crib mattress. Or, opt for a more expensive alternative such as the ZENbaby latex mattress which I would consider. In the mid-range, a coconut fiber and cotton mattress eliminates the chemicals associated with foams and plastics.
According to Berkeley Lab, SVOCS are not bound to the product so they can become gaseous or produce microscopic airborne and settled particles that are present in dust. They are a pervasive form of indoor air pollution that can be on any surface.
“People are exposed to SVOCs via multiple routes. They inhale air containing gaseous SVOCs or SVOCs adsorbed on airborne particles, they touch SVOC coated surfaces, they ingest dust containing SVOCs (a particularly important exposure route for infants), and the foods they eat contain SVOCs. Also, it has recently been recognized that airborne SVOCs can adsorb directly on the skin and then move into the body.”
Phthalates are SVOCs that are considered endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Just because a substance hasn’t been proven harmful doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful. It took the government ten years of additional research before it permanently banned specific Phthalates after the initial evidence that they were harmful. When a product is deemed harmful, manufacturers create another way to manufacture a similar product knowing they have a window of at least ten to twenty years before enough research is done to know if the product is harmful.
Natural, organic products are the safest choice. Latex, cotton, and wool have been used in bedding for decades and, in the case of cotton and wool, centuries.
To ensure you and your child’s health, consider their health before they are born.
Health and Safety Notices Related to Phthalates
For those who would like more information, we’ve included links to a variety of publications from government agencies below in addition to the links to published research included in the article above.
United States Consumer Product Safety Commission
Ban of Phthalates
Phthalates Business Guidance & Small Entity Compliance Guide
Center for Disease Control (CDC)
Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals Updated Tables, September 2013.