In a Nutshell:
- Toxic fire retardant chemicals have been added to mattresses made and sold in the U.S. since the mid-1970s. This includes halogenated and organophosphate flame retardants.
- In recent years, several states have banned chemical flame retardants in mattresses and upholstered furniture, leading to a ‘de facto’ national ban. This essentially means that everyone buying a mattress made in the US post-2020 is getting a safer bed.
- U.S. mattress manufactures are still legally required to meet open flame tests, but they now do so using safer alternatives.
- The most commonly used alternatives are wool, rayon, Kevlar, fiberglass, melamine, and boric acid. Some of these materials are better than others, both in terms of safety and effectiveness.
- Below, you’ll learn about each flame retardant alternative so that you can decide what’s best for you as you shop for a new mattress.
Chemical flame retardants have largely been banned in mattresses made in the United States, but there are still flame resistant standards that mattress manufacturers have to meet.
Fortunately, there are non-toxic alternatives to chemical flame retardants in mattresses. They have become more popular ever since states like California and Massachusetts passed strict laws regarding PBDEs and their replacements over the past few years.
These laws prohibit several specific flame retardants in mattresses and other consumer products. Yet questions remain: How effective (and safe!) are the alternatives in putting out the flames, or being resistant to them in the first place?
In this article, we’ll briefly characterize the major chemical flame retardants that have been the subject of legislative action and offer tips on how to avoid them. Then, after surveying the legal landscape regarding flame retardants in mattresses, we’ll take a deep dive into alternative flame retardant options to find out which ones are the safest. Equipped with this information, you’ll be able to choose your next mattress with confidence.
Table of Contents
- Chemical Flame Retardants
- Changes to Flame Retardant Laws in the United States
- Alternatives to Flame Retardant Chemicals
- 1. Wool
- 2. Rayon/Silica
- 3. Kevlar
- 4. Fiberglass
- 5. Melamine
- 6. Boric Acid
- 7. What About Latex? Is It Flame Resistant?
- Tips on Purchasing a Non-Toxic Mattress
- Highlights on Non-Toxic Flame Retardants
Chemical Flame Retardants
First, let’s take a look at the harmful chemical flame retardants that have been used in a variety of consumer products since around the mid-1970s. (Feel free to skim this part if you’re not into the most science-y stuff!)
All of the state laws banning chemical flame retardants (FR) target synthetic, lab-made compounds containing bromine or chlorine, known as organohalogen FRs. This means the chemicals have a carbon-containing portion (organo-) derived from fossil fuels plus multiple halogen atoms (bromine or chlorine). Sometimes, these chemicals are referred to as halogenated flame retardants.
Those FRs with bromine belong to two general classes named polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) or polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs). There are over 200 different halogenated flame retardants that could be used in mattresses.
Chlorine-containing FRs including TCEP, TCPP, and TDCPP, are chemically known as organophosphates and often referred to as a group by the term chlorinated tris. Incidentally, most pesticides and nerve gases are also organophosphates.
All three of these general classes of flame retardants—PBDEs, PBBs, and chlorinated tris—are additive FRs. This means they are not chemically bonded to mattress foam or covers like reactive FRs are. As such, they easily slough off with movement, contact, or general wear and tear. Then they enter the indoor or outdoor environment where people and pets can ingest them through inhalation or hand-to-mouth contact.
PBDEs and PBBs
In many cases, mixtures of each class (not just one particular chemical) are used in products. So, it’s difficult to know which specific FR is responsible for a given health outcome.
Once PBDEs and PBBs migrate out of products, they accumulate mostly in house dust. Human exposure can occur through inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption. PBDEs stay in fatty tissues of the body for long periods of time, and they are also found in human blood and breast milk in alarming amounts. Levels up to 100 times those in Europeans are common in the U.S.
Landfilled or incinerated consumer products containing PBDEs and PBBs release them in the environment where they do not break down quickly. So, they accumulate in air, bodies of water, soil, and wildlife.
Although two of the major PBDEs were phased out of production in the U.S. by 2013, older consumer products still contain them. Additionally, imported goods may serve as reservoirs for these flame retardants since they are still manufactured in some countries today. The same is true for PBBs. Unfortunately, manufacturers do not have to label which FRs are in their products.
PBDE exposure is associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children. Lower intelligence scores, attention disorders, and problems with fine motor control are common. Animal studies revealed that PBDE exposure led to liver tumors. As a result, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) declared one PBDE, deca-BDE, a possible carcinogen. This compound is still common in TVs.
In other animal studies, some PBBs cause skin disorders. Abnormalities in nervous and immune system functioning as well as in organs were evident. Lab animals exposed to high levels of PBBs developed liver cancer, prompting the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to declare that PBBs are possibly carcinogenic.
Chlorine-Containing Flame Retardants
Once certain PBDEs were banned by some states in the mid-2000s, mattress manufacturers transitioned to chlorinated tris.
Like PBDEs and PBBs, chlorinated FRs are found in air, water, and soil where they bioaccumulate in the environment and wildlife. Indoors, they usually settle on dust or in carpets.
One of the most widely used, TDCPP, and some of its breakdown products, are known carcinogens. So, too, is another high-volume FR: TCEP. Based on animal studies, many chlorinated tris compounds are endocrine disruptors, resulting in abnormal reproduction and development. They are also known to damage DNA in lab animals.
Changes to Flame Retardant Laws in the United States
Changes to state flame retardant laws in recent decades were a direct response to a 2007 rule set forth by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
The final rule required that mattresses must meet the federal safety standard for open-flame fire resistance. Their objective was to lengthen the time a person has to escape from a fire involving a burning mattress by making sure it didn’t get too hot in a short amount of time.
Although the CPSC rule did not require the use of chemical flame retardants, many companies incorporated a wide variety of chemicals into their products up to and around the time when the ruling first appeared. There is evidence that the industry encouraged the production and use of organohalogens in mattresses to hamper the bad press cigarettes got as fire starters, even going so far as to be intentionally deceitful about FRs safety and effectiveness. (This Chicago Tribune series is excellent, but if you’d prefer to watch something, the documentary Toxic Hot Seat explains the investigation well.)
Soon after, reports on the adverse health effects of PBDEs and related compounds—as well as their ineffectiveness in retarding fires—began to surface in the popular press. As a response to these reports, states began to legislate bans on chemical fire retardants (FR), usually defined as chemicals that resist or inhibit the spread of fire.
The earliest laws in several states completely banned these four compounds: penta-BDE, octa-BDE, TDCPP, and TCEP. They are considered to be the worst health offenders. Later, Massachusetts went further and banned replacements TBPH and its analog, TBB, which were believed to be safer than the original ones. Many states list specific FRs in their laws.
More recently, synergists (which are chemicals that enhance the effectiveness of flame retardants) have faced legislative scrutiny as well. This action is likely due to the U.S. National Toxicology Program declaring the synergist, antimony trioxide, to be a suspected carcinogen.
Massachusetts is the first state to specifically ban antimony trioxide in mattresses and other consumer products. California was the first to use the word “synergist” in its 2020 law. It included synergists in its definition of ‘flame retardant,’ but didn’t name any specific types.
Several states—namely California, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island—have placed generic, blanket bans on “flame retardants” without specifically listing them.
Although many states have taken action to control the use of chemical FRs in consumer products, there is still no federal law banning or restricting them. It wasn’t until 2017 that the CPSC issued a guidance on organohalogen (halogenated) flame retardants.
That being said, these state laws are still incredibly beneficial to the whole country because they act as ‘de facto’ national laws. Manufacturers are not going to create different products for different states; they are just going to make goods that can legally be shipped to any state in the US. Therefore, consumers who live in states without FR bans on the books will still benefit from the laws in other states.
Check out the website SaferStates.org to see which states have FR laws on the books.
Alternatives to Flame Retardant Chemicals
As the US mattress industry began phasing out harmful mattress flame retardants, their mattresses still had to meet an open flame test as required by law. There are several different ways they are able to do that without the harmful chemicals we just discussed:
- Boric acid
- Latex (kind of)
Some of these options are “better” than others when it comes to safety. Let’s talk about each one so you know what you’re dealing with as you shop for your mattress.
Wool is by far one of the best natural flame retardants that is both safe and effective, which is why so many organic mattress companies use it in their beds.
The natural flame resistant qualities of wool cannot be overestimated. Because of its high nitrogen and water content, it takes more oxygen—and an extremely intense heat source in close proximity—to start or sustain a flame in wool. If it happens, the flames won’t last long, either.
Another of wool’s features that makes it an excellent flame retardant is its unique cell membrane structure. Due to cross linkages, the membrane swells if heated to high temperatures. When it does, the membrane forms an insulating layer that prevents a fire from spreading.
According to the International Wool Textile Organization, wool:
- Smolders instead of catching fire
- Does not melt, drip, or stick to the skin when burned
- Gives off less smoke and toxic gas compared to other fibers
The two main downsides to wool it comes with a relatively high price tag, and that it obviously does not meet the selection criteria of vegans.
We’ve covered rayon (viscose) extensively here. It’s a type of fabric that can be made from a variety of plant-based materials, including wood pulp, cotton, or eucalyptus. Most (though not all) rayon has been treated with sodium hydroxide (a strong base that’s highly caustic).
Rayon is naturally quite flammable, but you may have heard that inherent rayon is flame resistant. How can that be?
When rayon is spun with fibers that are flame resistant, the final rayon product is considered to be inherently resistant to fire, too. When it comes to fire retardant mattresses, the word “inherent” means that the FR properties are part of the actual fabric, as opposed to the fabric having an FR treatment added to it.
Interestingly, exactly how those fibers became flame resistant in the first place is usually not explained by companies manufacturing such products. This lack of detail makes us wonder whether chemical FRs were used to create the fibers. In other words, while inherent rayon may not have been coated or chemically treated after it was produced, it’s not clear what happened to its fibers before or during rayon manufacture.
One manufacturer suggests some kind of chemical(s) was used, and it varies from company to company when they state: “The degree of inherently flame-resistant fibers within a flame-resistant fabric can vary widely from a few percent of the fibers to a full construction, depending on the manufacturer.”
Silica is one material that can be spun with rayon in order to make inherent rayon. Savvy Rest, for example, uses a rayon/silica fabric to meet flammability tests for their adjustable bed frame. But Savvy Rest is in the minority when it comes to transparency here… Most other manufacturers won’t tell you what exactly is added to their FR rayon.
Regardless of how it’s produced, inherent rayon will melt rather than burn when it ignites, which means that melted rayon will stick to skin. It passes the CPSC safety regulations and can be used in mattresses.
Rayon tends to be more affordable than wool. So, if the mattress brand will actually tell you how their rayon became inherent (or if you’re just not concerned about that part), then this is definitely better option than the dangerous flame retardant chemicals discussed above.
Kevlar is another example of an inherent flame resistant material, which means it hasn’t been treated with addedchemicals. Invented in the 1970s, Kevlar’s starting materials are derived from petroleum. Known as a para-aramid, Kevlar is resistant to heat and flames.
Like all fossil fuel products, Kevlar releases toxic fumes when burned. But unlike toxic FRs like PBDEs and PBBs, Kevlar is inert, which means it won’t “leach” or “flake off” toxic chemicals through normal wear and tear.
Interestingly, Kevlar is one of the few FR materials allowed under the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. This is one of the reasons why Essentia uses it as their fire retardant, because it allows their mattresses to be BOTH certified organic AND vegan.
Kevlar is also lightweight, which could be the major factor when purchasing a mattress. But, it’s also one of the most expensive options.
(It’s also worth noting that Kevlar was developed and is manufactured by DuPont, one of the main companies that has been poisoning people with PFAS for decades… Not ideal.)
Fiberglass mattresses are considered to be flame resistant. As an inexpensive and lightweight blend of mostly plastic and glass, fiberglass is becoming a popular choice as a flame retardant by many companies hoping to avoid chemical FRs, in part because it’s a cheaper option.
However, fiberglass in mattresses is not without its problems. People complain of health and property damage when tiny glass shards leak from their mattress. This situation has resulted in several lawsuits. We actually have a separate deep dive into fiberglass in mattresses, which you can check out here.
Melamine is also used as a “better” alternative to the more harmful flame retardant chemicals, but it’s much less common.
You may recall melamine from its involvement in a number of deaths and illnesses in the early 2000s when it got into baby formula and pet food. It’s a plastic component whose carbon-nitrogen bonds are similar to those in cyanide in terms of their chemical reactivities, and this is essentially what leads to its toxicity.
You can find out more in our deep dive into melamine right here.
6. Boric Acid
Boric acid is another less-commonly-used FR material. It’s considered a “natural flame retardant” and is therefore used by some natural/organic mattress brands.
Boric acid is used as a pesticide (which may be appealing to some shoppers as it will make your mattress more resistant to bed bugs and dust mites).
However, boric acid can be poisonous and it can cause either illness either acutely (if you ingest too much at one time) or chronically (if you ingest it regularly over a longer period of time). Of course, most mattress makers are careful to only apply safe amounts of boric acid to their beds, but it’s still something mindful shoppers will want to consider when deciding what’s best for them.
Boric also water-soluble, which means it can relatively easily be absorbed into your skin at night, especially if you’re sweating. When used as a FR, boric acid is simply “sprinkled” onto the mattress, which means it’s not inert and can “flake off” into the air around you.
7. What About Latex? Is It Flame Resistant?
Contrary to popular belief, latex derived from the sap of rubber trees is not naturally flame resistant.
Although different from rubber, latex contains 45% rubber. The rest is water. So, it’s understandable that the words latex and rubber are often used interchangeably.
As reported in a 2020 article published in the journal Polymers, natural rubber from tree sap has “inherently high flammability.” The researchers state: “Natural rubber is flammable. Moreover, it will emit a high yield of dense smoke and toxic gases once being ignited, which seriously decreases the possibility of escape and thus brings about a great threat to the life and property of people.”
This is why organic latex mattress makers describe their products as having an inner latex core wrapped in flame-resistant wool plus cotton to make it more comfortable. It is the wool that bestows the alleged flame resistance to latex mattresses. Non-organic latex mattresses likely have flame retardant chemicals added unless they also are wrapped in wool.
Incidentally, cotton’s reputation for being highly flammable may be changing. New research indicates that novel cotton hybrids can meet flammability standards. If so, there would be even less need for chemical FRs in mattresses made entirely of wool, cotton, and/or rubber (not synthetic) latex.
Buyers should be aware that most latex mattresses labeled as “100% natural” are not any more flame resistant by themselves than those which have been mixed with synthetic latex. Note that there will be more toxic gases emitted from a burning synthetic latex mattress since it’s a petroleum product.
Although non-organic latex mattresses may be cheaper than their organic competitors, they’ll either contain some wool or petroleum-based FRs. So, vegans may need to look elsewhere as well as people searching for fossil fuel-free (i.e., low-carbon footprint) products.
The one exception to this that’s worth taking note of is Naturepedic. This is the only organic mattress company we’ve been able to find that has been able to use innovative design to make a truly non-toxic AND vegan mattress that meets fire safety standards without ANY added flame retardants or barriers at all. They do this by adding an extra layer of organic cotton to the mattress, which meets fire resistant standards by slowing any potential flames or melting, should a fire occur.
Tips on Purchasing a Non-Toxic Mattress
Since manufacturers aren’t legally required to state on a label which flame retardants they use, most do not. It’s truly a buyer beware scenario. Here are a few tips to help you find a genuinely non-toxic mattress.
- Read the label. Manufacturers who use non-toxic FRs often state it on their labels as a way to signal to health-conscious shoppers that their product is safe. For instance, companies that craft mattresses made exclusively with certified organic materials will proudly tell you exactly what’s in their products. Since you spend a significant amount of your life sleeping, we recommend investing in an organic mattress if possible.
- Look for a “Contains No” label. Non-organic (as well as organic) mattresses that contain no chemical FRs may bear a label stating “Contains no added flame retardants.”
- No label? No buy. Conversely, if you don’t see a label identifier, there’s a good chance that the legally required FR is not too healthy. The mattress could even contain chemical FRs.
- Purchase a mattress made in the USA after 2020 when most of the chemical FR phaseouts were completed.
- To be totally safe, avoid polyurethane foam. If you have little ones or a family member with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), this is the most prudent step you can take to be safe. Alternatively, you may be able to get FR-free mattress with a doctor’s note.
- Test your mattress. If you’d like to know what’s in a mattress you’ve already purchased (and can’t return), send a sample to Duke University’s Foam Project.
Highlights on Non-Toxic Flame Retardants
If you’re looking for a non-toxic mattress without dangerous flame retardants and can afford an organic one, that is your best bet. Wool will serve as the non-chemical flame retardant in organic mattresses.
Wool is also the top choice for a non-toxic flame retardant if recyclability is an important criterion for you. It is also one of the most expensive options.
By contrast, fiberglass and rayon are not easily recyclable. Mattresses containing these materials will likely end up in a landfill at the end of their useful life.
Bullet-resistant Kevlar may serve as a flame retardant in mattresses. Because Kevlar is patented, expect higher price tags on mattresses made with Kevlar.
Given the wide range of choices of non-chemical flame retardants available today, you’re sure to find something that’s both effective and budget-friendly.
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