Ask Pablo: How Bad Is Memory Foam?

Memory foam pillows stacked on top of one another.

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Dear Pablo: How bad is memory foam for the planet and human health?

"Memory foam," also known by its technical name "visco-elastic polyurethane foam" is an expanded polyurethane with additional chemicals to enhance its elasticity and viscosity. As with many other plastics, polyurethane is made from chemicals that you wouldn't want to have for breakfast but it does become chemically inert when fully reacted. However, this does not mean that memory foam mattresses, mattress pads, and pillows are without environmental and health concerns.

The Impact Of Chemical Additives In Memory Foam

A hand with painted fingernails press into damaged memory foam.

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Federal standards on the flammability of mattresses (16 CFR Part 1633, Standard for the Flammability (Open Flame) of Mattress Sets; Final Rule) require memory foam mattresses to be made resistant to flame which is achieved through the addition of flame retardant chemicals. One popular flame retardant chemical is PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) which has been found to bio-accumulate in fat tissue, blood, breast milk and wild peregrine falcons. It has also been found to cause hyperactivity in mice that were exposed during brain development. The European Union has banned PBDE.

The chemical additives to the polyurethane are said to give off a distinct chemical odor that lessens after adequate ventilation. It can continue to irritate people sensitive to chemicals or odors. These odors, which are similar to those of freshly painted walls, are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) off-gassing from the memory foam. Polyurethane mattresses have been proven to be pulmonary irritants in laboratory mice.

When It Goes Up In Flames

A white hand touches memory foam with a protective cover.

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Despite its added flame retardants, memory foam will still burn given the right temperatures. As it approaches 500°F it emits decomposition products including isocynates and hydrogen cyanide. Of course the gasses from other plastics and plastic additives in your house will probably kill you before the flames reach your memory foam mattress but anything gasses that can kill you in a house fire are certainly not good to release into the atmosphere.

Alternatives To Memory Foam

Sheared unprocessed wool in a basket.

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The growth in the environmentally conscious consumer has expanded the availability of more sustainable bedding options. Companies are now selling mattresses made with organic cotton and/or wool. If you are looking for foam you also have the option of a natural latex foam mattress. Natural latex is a renewable resource that comes from the rubber tree. Unlike urethane, it is biodegradable. If you do get a memory foam mattress or have one already please remember not to let small children sleep in it. The contour-fitting properties of these mattresses can make it difficult for them to turn over.