Green dreams: “Natural” claims are no guarantee of a greener mattress

Consumer Reports News: November 12, 2009 05:08 AM

Some mattress manufacturers are pushing pricey models they claim are “green,” “eco-friendly,” or “natural.” But there are no standards for those terms, so companies can define them any way they like. That said, a mattress is made of many parts, and some can be greener than others. Here’s how to decipher green claims you’ll come across when shopping for your baby’s crib mattress—or your own mattress. (See our cribs buying advice for related information.)

  • Natural. You’ll find this claim on mattresses that are covered or filled with natural materials, such as cotton, wool, or Tencel, which is made from wood fiber. The term is also commonly used when the mattress filling is made from natural rubber latex, soy, or other plant-derived materials. But “natural” materials aren’t necessarily easier on the environment and might be blended with synthetic ones or can be grown or treated with harsh chemicals.
  • USDA Organic. Just like food, natural materials such as cotton can be produced organically without most synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. But organic certification only applies to how the specific materials of the filling or the outside fabric were grown, not to the whole mattress. What’s more, toxic chemicals like formaldehyde or certain synthetic dyes are not restricted when certified organic materials are processed into fabric.
  • Hypoallergenic. This term might be used when a mattress contains natural rubber latex, implying that the latex will not trigger allergic reactions in susceptible people. But there’s no standard definition or verification for “hypoallergenic,” so it’s not necessarily a meaningful claim. If you have any allergies, always read the label.
  • Chemical-free. This claim implies that a mattress doesn’t contain or emit potentially harmful synthetic chemicals, such as flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Some products use flame-retardant compounds that the Environmental Protection Agency says might be less harmful than other PBDEs. A chemical-free claim might imply that a mattress doesn’t contain certain volatile organic compounds, such as formaldehyde, but without standards or verification the meaning of such a claim can vary widely. An increasingly common independent European certification that’s popping up on mattresses and other textiles here, “Oeko-Tek Standard 100,” is worth looking for. It provides some assurance that chemicals, including certain PBDE flame retardants, VOCs, and heavy metals, are restricted in the final product.
  • Label alert! New mattresses must meet federal flammability standards, so look for a permanent label on a mattress that says it does.

This content was originally published in the October 2009 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

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