Sleeping with Danger?

New mattresses must withstand an open flame, and flame-retardant chemicals are often used to help them pass that test.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Hundreds of people die each year in house fires that begin in a mattress.

Last summer, the government took dramatic action to reduce those numbers.

Beginning July 1, 2007, mattresses made and sold in the United States are now required to meet tough new federal standards, proving they can withstand a blast of fire without bursting into flames.

"Our goal is to give consumers more time to get out of their homes in the event that there is a mattress fire," said Patty Davis, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.  "This regulation is expected to save as many as 270 lives every year."

But while new mattresses will help protect you from fire, they may be exposing you and your family to a different threat: chemicals inside some mattresses, and critics say those chemicals are dangerous.

Mark Strobel, president of Strobel Technologies, a mattress manufacturing company in southern Indiana, says some of the chemicals are toxic and cancer-causing. "Now we're sleeping in it, and most people don't know it's happening," he said.

Strobel says the government's new flammability standard for beds is unnecessary and, he believes, outright dangerous because of what it means for many mattresses.

Boric acid, better known as household roach killer, is now being added to some mattresses to help them pass the government's flammability test. Other chemicals are being used, as well, such as antimony trioxide, a flame-retardant (FR) chemical which the CPSC calls a "probable carcinogen."

"It's right under the ticking of the mattress in the cotton batting," Strobel said. "The labeling tells you to keep it away from children and it's extremely poisonous, and now we're putting it in our mattresses...and people are getting sick from these mattresses already."

Amy Beechy is one of those people.

Last year, she purchased a $700 mattress, and she quickly realized that new mattress was making her feel sick.

"I had flu like symptoms like fatigue, headaches, my eyes would burn," Beechy explained. "I just didn't feel good when I laid on it."

Beechy stopped sleeping on the mattress and immediately began to feel better.

Her doctor at the Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine tests his patients for exposure to heavy metals and chemicals. Dale Guyer says in the past several months, he's seen an increased number of patients test positive for antimony, one of the FR chemicals now being added to mattresses.

"Nobody has done a 20-year study to see what could happen with the compounds in these mattresses," Guyer said. "This could be a potential serious health risk for a lot of people and they aren't even aware of it."

And it's not just consumers who are complaining about the chemicals now mandated in mattresses. At several factories around the country, the people who make mattresses say they're suffering health problems, too.

WTHR talked to workers at a large mattress plant who say they and dozens of their co-workers have gotten sick in the past eight months.

"We've seen rashes and skin irritations, headaches, sore throats..." said one of the workers.

"I've had nose bleeds, bronchitis, and coughing," said another. "It's happening to lots of us and it's just been getting worse."

They say all the health problems began last year when they started making mattresses that pass the government's new flame test.

"These problems didn't exist until the FR material came into play," said a longtime factory worker. "We don't know what we're dealing with."

The factory workers asked WTHR to protect their identity because they say speaking out could cost them their jobs. But they fear not speaking out will cost you your health. The workers are employed at a factory in the eastern United States which produces hundreds of thousands of mattresses each year. When asked if they would purchase and sleep on a mattress made at their factory, the workers said they would not.

"I don't know what's in that mattress. I don't know what I'm sleeping on," one of the employees explained.

Mattress manufacturers don't have to tell you what FR chemicals -- if any -- are in their mattresses because there is no mandatory labeling requirement. The government says that type of labeling is unnecessary.  According to CPSC's spokeswoman, FR chemicals stay inside the mattress and do not get out.

"The consumer would never come in contact with something that was inside a barrier, inside their mattress," Davis said.

But that's not what the CPSC's own scientific report says.

A detailed health assessment conducted by the agency shows, in some tests, "antimony [was] released from the [mattress] barrier," and there were "relatively high releases of boric acid" from inside the mattresses.  But overall, the report found the chemicals "are not expected to pose any appreciable risk of health affects to consumers who sleep on treated mattresses."

Amy Beechy is skeptical of the findings. "It makes no sense at all," she said. "It's common sense to me that even a low level of a carcinogen emitting from a product cannot be good over time."

Strobel also wonders if the benefit of FR-treated mattresses will outweigh the risk.

"What's going to happen to people after sleeping on those mattresses for 20 years?" he asked.  "What are we going to find out then?"

Strobel formed an organization called "People for Clean Beds" to fight the government-mandated FR standard. He admits his four-year battle was largely lost when CPSC implemented the new standard last summer, and has since become one of the only mattress manufacturers in the nation who has decided to not meet the federal FR standard.

By not meeting the flammability regulation, Strobel can sell his beds by prescription only.  The federal flammability standard does allow anyone to purchase a bed that does not meet the FR regulation by having a doctor's prescription.

"It would be a lot easier for me to put chemicals in the beds and go on with my business, but there's a time when you have to draw the line ethically. I want to do the right thing," he said.

Strobel's concerns have come under fire by the International Sleep Products Association, a trade association for the mattress industry, which states that his claims are unscientific and designed to promote his own products.  The association contacted WTHR before this report was broadcast to express "urgent and serious concerns" about a news report that it predicted would lack fairness and accuracy.

"Your allegations raise significant issues that could discourage many consumers from buying the kinds products that can help protect them and their families from the kinds of mattress fires that kill and maim hundreds of children and adults each year, products that use materials that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has concluded are safe for consumers," wrote ISPA executive vice president Ryan Trainer.

ISPA prepared a document titled "Myths vs. Facts" that challenges some of the criticism of FR chemicals. And in a written statement from ISPA, Trainer repeatedly referenced the CPSC study as proof that FR chemicals in mattresses are safe for consumers.

But even top officials at the CPSC are not convinced the chemicals are safe. Despite CPSC's study that found a low risk of health affects from FR chemicals, CPSC acting chairman Nancy Nord recently said she is concerned about FR chemicals and does not want to encourage their use because "the health effects of some of these chemicals are not well-understood."

Her statement came as part of a February 1, 2008, announcement by the CPSC that it will be seeking a new mandatory standard to reduce the spread of fire in all upholstered furniture, such as couches as chairs. According to a press release from the agency, "CPSC's objective is to reduce the fire risk in upholstered furniture without requiring the use of fire retardant chemicals."

The CPSC says some manufacturers choose to meet the mattress FR regulation by using naturally flame-retardant fibers. Which mattresses include only natural fibers and which ones use chemicals such as boric acid and antimony? Again, there is no way to tell because manufacturers are not required to tell you. 

Restonic Sleep Products, a mattresses manufacturer based in New Albany, Ind.,  uses a flame-retardant barrier that includes cellulose and silica. Company president Bob Quinn says his company's mattresses do not contain boric acid or antimony trioxide.

Mattresses that meet the new FR regulation must be marked with a label that states they meet "16 CFR Part 1633," the federal flammability open flame standard.