A team of environmental engineers from the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, in a first-of-its-kind study, have discovered that infants are exposed to high levels of chemical emissions from crib mattresses. Researchers analyzed foam padding in crib mattresses and found that these mattresses emit significant amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds are potentially harmful.
Samples of polyurethane foam and polyester foam padding from 20 new and old crib mattresses were tested. Graduate student Brandon Boor, in the Cockrell School’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, conducted the study under the supervision of assistant professor Ying Xu and associate professor Atila Novoselac. Boor also worked with senior researcher Helena Järnström from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. They reported their findings in the February issue of Environmental Science & Technology.
What researchers found was that new mattresses emit about 4 times as many VOCs as old mattresses. They also observed that body heat increases emissions and that chemical emissions were strongest in the sleeping infant’s immediate breathing zone.
They found that new mattresses emitted VOCs at a rate of 87.1 micrograms per square meter per hour, and older mattresses emitted at a rate of 22.1 micrograms per square meter per hour. Boor notes, crib mattresses release VOCs at comparable rates to other consumer products and indoor materials. This includes laminate flooring at 20 to 30 micrograms per square meter per hour and wall covering at 51 micrograms per square meter per hour.
Boor’s interest in this study developed after finding that infants spend 50 to 60 percent of their day sleeping. Infants are considered highly susceptible to the adverse heath effects of exposure to indoor air pollutants. Boor notes, “I wanted to know more about the chemicals they may inhale as they sleep during their early stages of development. This research also helps to raise awareness about the various chemicals that may be found in crib mattresses, which are not typically listed by manufacturers.”
Researchers sampled 20 mattresses that came from 10 manufacturers. They didn’t disclose the manufacturer’s names to prevent from focusing on specific brands. They preferred to draw attention to the product segment.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, little is currently known about the health affects from the levels of VOCs found in homes.
There are a number of compounds considered to be VOCs, including formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, perchlorethylene and acetone. The mattresses that were analyzed contained none of these organic compounds. They did however identify more than 30 VOCs, including phenol neodecanoic acid and linalool. Limonene, a compound that provides a lemon scent to some products, was abundant in the mattresses.
Charles J. Weschler, adjunct professor in environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers University, chemist and indoor air quality expert, notes that he doesn’t think the levels of chemical concentration found in the mattresses are alarming, however he considers the research valuable.
Weschler comments, “It’s good to be alerted to the fact that crib mattresses are a significant source of chemicals in an infant’s environment.” He points out that crib mattresses might one day be analyzed for harmful compounds as a result of the current study.
The research team reported that VOC levels were significantly higher in the sleeping infant’s breathing zone when compared with bulk room air. In other words, an infant is exposed to about twice the VOC levels as individuals standing in the same room. Moreover, because infants take in higher air volumes per body weight than adults and sleep longer, they experience about 10 times more inhalation exposure as adults when exposed to the same levels of VOCs. Xu adds, “Our findings suggest the reuse of an older crib or an extended airing-out period may help reduce infant VOC exposures.”
The researchers point out that used mattresses may seem to be an alternative, however they may contain other harmful chemicals such as flame retardants that have been banned. Richard Corsi, chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, adds, understanding sleeping environments is important to the health of infants and adults. “We need to better understand the complex sleep micro-environment to improve it and reduce the harmful effects of related pollutants on infants.”