Q. I’ve been hearing all sorts of scary news about flame retardants in mattresses, but what about flames?  More scary, right?  If I go to all the trouble and expense to buy an organic mattress, will I be less safe from a house fire?   – Joanne, Il

A. The health concerns connected with chemical flame retardants (which include memory troubles, hearing loss, and messed up thyroid function) are indeed scary, but we totally see your point, Joanne. If you’re going to croak in a fire anyway, it doesn’t do you much good to worry about maintaining excellent hearing, memory and thyroid function. Fortunately, you stand a good chance of avoiding both a fiery end and a lifetime of asking people to please repeat themselves. Current fire safety standards are designed to prevent mattresses and other furniture from bursting into flames should a lit cigarette be dropped upon them, and they can be met fairly easily without using the dangerous brominated flame retardants that have become widespread, explains Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group (EWG). A watchdog organization, EWG has recently added flame retardants to the long list of substances being researched in their labs and offices. “We like to promote non-chemical, design solutions,” says Lunder. Wool, for instance, can be used as a barrier to prevent highly flammable foam stuffing from catching fire, which is what a lot of the mattresses on the natural product market use. Don’t feel like you have to spend thousands of dollars on a tricked-out organic mattress, though. It’s always good to support sustainable manufacturing practice if you can afford to, but you can avoid the worst nasties by simply choosing a better mainstream option. Ikea, for instance, is phasing out brominated fire retardants, and Serta already uses a barrier system on all mattresses. EWG also maintains alist of companies that are taking steps in the right direction.

And moving forward, it’s good to know tighter regulations are being explored (especially considering the lousy track record of fire retardants: anyone remember when asbestos and PCBs were considered safe?)  Two types of brominated fire retardants have already been phased out, and 24 states require “fire-safe” cigarettes (they self-extinguish if left unattended), which could take the safety burden off of mattresses. And of course there’s always the chemical-free solution that is, duh, just not smoking in bed.   

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008