Got a baby on the way? Don't wait to buy a new crib mattress until just before the baby's born. A recent study of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) suggests it might be a healthy idea to buy early, remove its plastic packaging, and let the foam mattress air out about six months before putting a baby to sleep on it. Or get a used mattress that's already been well ventilated.

Baby in cribIt's a well-established fact that foam crib mattresses emit toxic fumes, as do many other household items. Brandon Boor, an environmental engineer at the University of Texas in Austin, wanted to know just how much of the VOCs were emitted. After all, babies typically spend 12 hours or more breathing in these toxic fumes but are they inhaling enough to harm them?

All foam-based consumer products, even laminate flooring, are made from adhesives, catalysts, resins, and solvents that are emitted from the foam and mix with everyday chemicals in the air to form VOCs. Even at low concentrations, prolonged exposure to VOCs are known to increase an infant's risk for allergies, asthma, and lung infections.

Boor and his research team tested 20 crib mattresses, new and used, made from polyurethane foam or polyester foam. In one test, mattress samples were placed in a chamber and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry were used to measure the VOCs as they were released. But babies don't sleep in laboratory chambers.

To get a better real-world understanding of VOC behaviors, a second experiment was done on the mattresses in a chamber about the size of a typical nursery room. The researchers knew the sleeping baby's body heat would likely invigorate release of VOCs so they heated a steel cylinder to the temperature of a sleeping baby and placed the heated cylinder on the mattress. They then measured the VOC concentrations about an inch off the mattress, right about where a sleeping baby's breathing zone would be and they measured the VOCs about ten feet away from the mattress, where an adult might be standing.

The researchers found more than 30 different kinds of VOC associated with the foam crib mattresses, including:


  • Phenol, an air pollutant recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and
  • 2-ethylhexanoic acid, a chemical that the European Union says disrupts human development.

By the numbers, the researchers found that:

  • Sleeping babies inhale approximately 8 micrograms (µgs) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per hour.
  • Emission concentration is highest in baby's breathing zone.
  • Average rate of release is 56µg per square meter (just over one square yard) per hour.
  • New mattresses emit about 4 times more VOCs than older mattresses.

Boor would like to see manufacturers of foam-based baby products use materials that emit low amounts of VOCs. In the meantime, he recommends airing new foam crib mattresses at least six months before use or using old, rather than new, mattresses.

Source: Pelley, Janet. "Crib Mattresses Expose Infants To Elevated Levels of Volatile Organic Compounds." C&EN. Chemical and Engineering News. Feb 27, 2014. Web. Apr 14, 2014.