PhotoEven when babies are nestled all snug in their beds, they may be exposed to high levels of potentially dangerous chemicals, a University of Texas study finds.

A team of environmental engineers from the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT-Austin found that infants are exposed to high levels of chemical emissions from crib mattresses while they sleep.

Analyzing the foam padding in crib mattresses, the team found that the mattresses release significant amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), potentially harmful chemicals also found in household items such as cleaners and scented sprays.

The researchers studied samples of polyurethane foam and polyester foam padding from 20 new and old crib mattresses. They found:

  • New crib mattresses release about four times as many VOCs as old crib mattresses.
  • Body heat increases emissions.
  • Chemical emissions are strongest in the sleeping infant's immediate breathing zone.

Graduate student Brandon Boor became motivated to conduct the study after finding out that infants spend 50 to 60 percent of their day sleeping. Infants are considered highly susceptible to the adverse health effects of exposure to indoor air pollutants.

"I wanted to know more about the chemicals they may inhale as they sleep during their early stages of development," he said. "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."

The researchers concluded that, on average, new crib mattresses emitted VOCs at a rate of 87.1 micrograms per square meter per hour, while older mattresses emitted VOCs at a rate of 22.1 micrograms per square meter per hour.

At present, not much is known about the health effects that occur from the levels of VOCs found in homes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The researchers identified more than 30 VOCs in the mattresses, including phenol, neodecanoic acid and linalool. The most abundant chemicals identified in the crib mattress foam, such as limonene (a chemical that gives products a lemon scent), are routinely found in many cleaning and consumer products.

Chemist and indoor air quality expert Charles J. Weschler, adjunct professor in environmental and occupational medicine at Rutgers University, said he does not think the levels of chemical concentration found in the mattresses are alarming, but he considers the research valuable.

"It's good to be alerted to the fact that crib mattresses are a significant source of chemicals in an infant's environment," said Weschler, who noted crib mattresses might one day be analyzed for noxious chemicals as a result of such research.

The researchers found that VOC levels were significantly higher in a sleeping infant's breathing zone when compared with bulk room air, exposing infants to about twice the VOC levels as people standing in the same room. 

What to do

The researchers said that parents who want to reduce infant VOC exposure could consider using an older crib, while making sure the crib is safe, properly assembled and has not been recalled.

However, reusing an older crib mattress could also be hazardous, since older mattresses might contain toxic substances, such as flame retardants, that have been banned.

An extended airing-out period can be used to reduce emissions from new crib mattresses.


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