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I recently purchased a memory foam (polyurethane) mattress and was looking online to see how long they take to "air out". They produce a strong odor for awhile after manufacture. However, instead of finding my answer I found seemingly endless reports on websites claiming that memory foam gives off potentially toxic fumes.

From http://news.softpedia.com/news/Can-Your-Mattress-Kill-You-76887.shtml

It is clear that the hydrocarbons evaporate and load the sleeping room. Most of the hydrocarbons are powerful carcinogenic chemicals and attack, with severe damages, the immune and nervous systems. Most autoimmune disorders (like arthritis, lupus, allergies asthma, and others) have been connected with or thought to be boosted by increased exposure to petroleum. Interestingly, in the US there are no exposure limits for carcinogenicity in the case of the polyurethans.

From http://www.myfoammattress.net/compare/organic.html

Recent findings also showed that petroleum-based foam mattresses may be a source of cancer-causing chemicals. During use, all these foams break down in dangerous by-products: toxic dust under the bed and formaldehyde gas in the air.

and

Additionally, the average mattress seems to contain around a pound of fire retardants called PDBE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), already banned in Europe and the US. These PDBE have only been recently banned (January 2005) so the mattress you currently sleep on probably still contains them. Tests show that these chemicals may be especially toxic to kids, potentially affecting their hearing, memory and even intelligence after sleeping on PDBE-treated cribs.

I am doubtful of these claims, because it seems to me that if they were true, these mattresses either wouldn't be on the market or you'd hear more about these problems. Second, most of these websites seem to be marketing alternative "natural organic latex" mattresses, so their motives are suspect.

My question then: Is there any evidence that memory foam (polyurethane) mattresses give of toxic gasses, and if so, do they do so in quantities that can have a noticeable effect on a sleeper's health?

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if you've not found anything except on some conspiracy theory and activist websites, chances are neither will we :) Those things have to go through approval processes. And just think of the billions worth in legal claims that would ensue were the claims about them being dangerous to be true. –  jwenting Jul 21 '11 at 13:40
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@jwenting There's a LOT of websites out there if you look. It's not just one or two nutcases with a computer. Also, you'll see lots of comments on these sites like "OMG, thank you for telling us this! My kids sleep on those mattresses!" People need to be able to find the opposing information somewhere. The legal claims aspect is a good point though. I think I'll buy a second mattress and sleep between them so that I can make sure I get my share when the time comes. –  John Rhoades Jul 21 '11 at 13:50
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I Think the key word here is potentially. If you concentrate the fumes enough then they could kill or cause you harm. The same is true of almost any gas, except maybe pure O2. So technically this is probably correct. But If i want to cut into the market share of a product with my alternative I make claims that while true infer an exagerated risk. It a marketing tactic that is effective among a certian group of people who think everything man made is going to kill them. –  Chad Jul 21 '11 at 15:41
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@Chad. You're right about the gasses except for one thing, concentrated O2 absolutely can kill. –  Monkey Tuesday Jul 21 '11 at 23:47
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For what it's worth, when I searched the Federal Trade Commission website to see if they had gone after any mattress companies for anything, the only thing I found was reusing mattress stuffing. Nothing under "polyurethane", memory foam, or mattress. –  nalgenegirl Aug 4 '11 at 7:08
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2 Answers

In short, potentially yes, at least in mice:

The authors used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to identify respiratory irritants (e.g., styrene, isopropylbenzene, limonene) in the emissions of one of the polyurethane foam mattresses. Some mattresses emitted mixtures of volatile chemicals that had the potential to cause respiratory-tract irritation and decrease airflow velocity in mice.

Also, old memory foam mattresses may contain pentaBDE as flame retardant. pentaBDE may be hazardous to health:

studies show that pentaBDE is bioaccumulating and has the potential to adversely affect health

Finally, this site (which I am not confident of, but looks legit), clearly states that foam mattresses are at least irritant.

Route of entry: Inhalation - Foam dust
Health hazards: Coarse dust can cause mechanical irritation of lungs and eyes. Airborne dust is evaluated as a nuisance dust. If ignited, foam may decompose and emit toxic gases and respiratory irritants.

Route of entry: Eye - Foam dust
Health hazards: Coarse dust can cause mechanical irritation to the eyes. If exposed, avoid rubbing eyes.

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In addition to Sklivvz's answer, polyurethane foam (memory foam) may emit formaldehyde:

[0002] It is known from the state of the art that polyurethane foams may emit formaldehyde, this emission of formaldehyde being generally undesirable. These emissions are detected, for example, in the course of measurements in accordance with VDA 275 (bottle method, 3 h 60.degree. C.) or even in accordance with VDA 276 (emission-chamber test, 65.degree. C.). These formaldehyde emissions may arise already in freshly produced foams and may be intensified by ageing processes, especially photo-oxidation. --PROCESS FOR LOWERING EMISSIONS OF A POLYURETHANE FOAM (patent)

In addition to the acute short term effects of formaldehyde poisoning, formaldehyde is considered carcinogenic to humans and may have negative effects after long term exposure.

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It's an interesting conjecture. What you haven't shown, though, is that the emitted formaldehyde is at a high enough concentration to trigger these reactions. (You also need a control group to show that people sleeping on other mattresses don't experience headaches, skin rashes, etc.) –  Oddthinking Feb 19 '12 at 2:28
    
@Oddthinking Yes, but that would be much more costly than what I did. –  Muhd Feb 22 '12 at 22:38
    
Agreed, but until you do that (or more likely, find someone else who has done that and written it up in a peer-reviewed journal, this is merely speculation, and is outside of what is accepted at Skeptics.SE. –  Oddthinking Feb 23 '12 at 0:38
    
@Oddthinking That is not the case. I have seen plenty of answers that did not cite a peer-reviewed journal that have been accepted on this site. –  Muhd Feb 24 '12 at 0:13
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@Muhd You have certainly proven that mattresses may give off formaldehyde, but not that it is effectively toxic! In toxicology the dose makes the poison. –  Sklivvz Feb 24 '12 at 22:45
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