It is great that you are asking questions about the science behind the fears.
Many people have environmental concerns, without bothering to read the research and evaluate the concern for themselves.
- Although I went to art school, I find that I read more science journals for my work as an interior designer than I ever thought I would!
- Unfortunately this means that a lot of the links in my answer below are a bit boring.
Sensitivity to pollutants
Children are more sensitive than adults to environmental pollutants for several reasons that I know of.
- First of all they are smaller, so the same level of exposure to anything is proportionally a larger "dose".
- Secondly their bodies are doing an amazing amount of cell division, and certain environmental pollutants can act as hormonal mimics (more on that here), and interfere with normal cell growth.
This is true in adults also, but we are not doing as much cell development. The same effect is true of carcinogens, they are more likely to affect a cell as it is dividing.
My approach to research
When researching, I try to look for articles that paint a balanced view of the potential threat of environmental exposures, and that are peer reviewed scientific articles. If you can plow through them, the articles at Environmental Health Perspectives are very good, and searchable.
As in any field, there are studies and opinions on both sides of any issue, particularly given the difficulty of doing research on human effects.
When in doubt I tend to favor the precautionary principle: that if potential health issue seem to be indicated in research on a specific chemical, the use of that chemical should be discontinued until it is proven to be safe.
Chemicals of concern
Given the above mind set, I do believe that a mattress intended for use by a child should be as "safe" as possible.
However, three of the main categories of chemicals of concern, that might be found in the home, are not found in mattresses.
Flame retardants. Halogenated flame retardants, which are used in upholstery foam and many other products do not delay flame enough to be meet the fire safety code for mattresses. I believe there is enough science supporting these chemicals' danger that I would avoid other products made with them, but they are not usually in mattresses. In fact they have been listed as a California Proposition 65 carcinogen just this year.Most mattresses use a barrier cloth technology to make them fire resistant.
Phthalates arechemicals added to plastics to change their texture, usually to make them more flexible. They are used in vinyl flooring products and vinyl wallpaper, but are not in mattresses. Again, there is enough good science about the risks of these materials that I would avoid them.
Formaldehyde. I have found no evidence that formaldehyde, which is found in adhesives, manufactured wood products, and insulation, is used in any of the component parts of a mattress. It is a VOC of high concern, and should be avoided when possible.
So a conventional mattress is pretty much free of the chemicals and VOCs that I most often try to avoid.
But some schools of thought indicate that natural materials like wool, cotton and natural latex are healthier than petroleum derived products like polyester, foam and nylon.
Investigating a natural mattress
- They can be quite pricey, and it is difficult to spend that much on a toddler bed.
- Do get a good quality mattress cover to protect whatever mattress you invest in.
Lifekind has been making chemical free mattresses for decades, and has a variety of styles.
My personal preference
I do tend to favor natural mattresses, because I find it so difficult to get conventional mattress manufacturers to tell me all of the component chemicals in each of the materials used in a mattress.
However I know of no research that would specifically influence you to choose natural materials.
Good luck making your selection.
For more information:
Read "I'm shopping for a new mattress, preferably natural/organic if it's affordable. Any advice?" a Q&A answered by Kirsten Flynn.