If you buy a traditional mattress, you are sleeping on polyurethane foam that manufacturers must drench in toxic chemicals to keep your bed from igniting at the slightest spark.
Polyurethane foam is already toxic—it releases toluene diisocyanate, which can cause severe lung problems1—but the heavy doses of flame-retardants only exacerbate the problem. In order to pass US safety standards for flammability, an ignited mattress must not become hotter than 200kW over the course of 30 minutes, which is theoretically enough time for the sleeper to notice that his bed is on fire and remove himself from the situation.2 The mattress must also withstand an open-flame test for 70 seconds. In order for this to be possible, manufacturers must use large quantities of chemicals, and they are not even required to inform consumers what products they are sleeping on every night. Antimony is commonly used, but extended exposure to antimony can adversely affect the heart, digestive system, eyes, skin, and lungs.3 Brominated fire retardants are also widely used, but polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) specifically were banned in 2005 because of their potential to disrupt thyroid hormone activity and impair neurodevelopment.4 The other popular option, boric acid, is just roach killer. Do you want to breath in the fumes from these toxic chemicals for eight hours every night?
1 Debra Lynn Dadd, Home Safe Home: Creating a Healthy Home Environment by Reducing Exposure to Toxic Household Products (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004).
2 Consumer Product Safety Commission, “16 CFR Part 1633 Standard for the Flammability (Open Flame) of Mattress Sets; Final Rule,” www.cpsc.gov/businfo/frnotices/fr06/mattsets.pdf (accessed November 10, 2010).
3 Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Public Health Statement for Antimony,” CAS# 7440-360, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=330&tid=58 (accessed June 10, 2010).
4 USGS, “Brominated Flame Retardants in the Environment” www.cerc.usgs.gov/pubs/center/pdfDocs/PBDE.pdf (accessed November 10, 2010)