Babies are exposed to chemical emissions from crib mattresses while they sleep, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin.
A team of UT environmental engineers analyzed the foam padding and plastic covers of 20 new and old crib mattresses and found that they emitted volatile organic compounds — known as VOCs — chemicals similar to those found in lemon-scented sprays and other household items.
“We want to have a better understanding of the sleeping environments for infants and provide a baseline for future research,” said Brandon Boor, the engineering graduate student who conducted the study in conjunction with the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, where he lives.
The study did not look at the health effects of breathing in such chemicals, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says such compounds are irritants that, in some cases, may cause cancer.
Charles Weschler, a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers University, said the research was valuable but did not believe the concentration was alarming, according to the news release.
The study found new crib mattresses release four times as many chemicals as older mattresses, which Boor attributed to older mattresses having more time to air out. Also, the chemical emissions were twice as high in the immediate breathing area compared with the rest of the room because the air in the rest of the room dilutes the chemicals.
Still, the chemicals were released from the mattresses at rates similar to other household products, such as laminate flooring and wall coverings, the study found.
The research looked at several different brands of mattresses, though the study did not disclose the manufacturers’ names. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Nordic Research Opportunity. None of the researchers received other funding that might pose a conflict of interest, the university said.
The engineers said they were interested in studying the crib mattresses because of the time babies spend sleeping — between 50 and 60 percent of their day.
Ying Xu, the UT professor who supervised the study, called it the “initial phase” of research into the sleeping environments of babies. Infants are more susceptible to indoor pollutants because, proportionally speaking, they breathe in more air per pound of body weight than adults.
“As researchers we are responsible for investigating whether there are potentially harmful chemicals in these products, measure the levels of these chemicals, whether they are causing risk, and what we can do to reduce that risk,” she said.
The UT study looked strictly at volatile organic compounds, not the flame retardant chemicals polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, that have been banned in Europe and phased out in the United States.
Xu said the team’s future research will look at some of those other types of chemicals and examine what alternative green chemicals could be used instead.
Allison Mack, owner of Austin Moms Blog and mother of two young boys, said she would wait for more details before panicking about crib mattresses. Studies can become overwhelming for parents because of the sheer number released and the sometimes contradicting findings, she said.
“It’s one of those things: You want to have your child on a firm and sturdy mattress—because there’s a study on that—but now that mattress is possibly emitting these chemicals into your child’s lungs.”
“There’s a happy medium for studies and how you respond to them as a parent,” she said.
What’s a parent to do?
UT researchers said parents should consider using an older crib mattress or provide “an extended airing-out period” before putting a new mattress in the crib. Pick that older mattress wisely, though, to avoid one that is unsanitary or contains now-banned fire retardants.