What are Flammability Laws and How Do They Apply to Latex Mattresses?

What are Flammability Laws and How Do They Apply to Latex Mattresses?

In July 2007, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) passed a new set of regulations designated 16 CFR 1633. CFR 1633 requires all mattresses sold in the U.S., whether locally or internationally produced, to meet or exceed safety standards in an open-flame test. Its sister-regulation, 16 CFR 1632, concerns cigarette fire ignition and was implemented in the 1970s.

The result? A range of industrial petrochemicals are making their way into a variety of approved flame retardant barriers, or FR barriers, in mattresses. Though these chemicals may minimize the chance of mattresses combusting, it's possible that they're exposing people to dangerous cancer-causing agents.

The CPSC's Stance

Though the CPSC has tested a range of allowable industrial chemicals and insists that these chemicals are safe, there are some dangerous logical flaws in their "assumptions". According to a CPSC report on the safety of various FR chemicals, some of these assumptions include:

A young child's ability to refrain from "mouthing" their mattress: "Children" are not expected to directly mouth the FR-treated barrier". (Although most FR barriers surround the surface of the mattress, and anyone with children knows how often sheets get removed or pulled back by playful toddlers who like to put things in their mouths.)

Infrequent and short-lived intercourse in bed: "Sexual activity may increase the amount of FR chemical that may enter the body through ingestion. The frequency of this activity is highly variable … quantifying representative exposure … is difficult. However, the exposures may not add significantly to the overall daily intake of FR chemical."

The incorrect application of previous governmental standards: Any chemical previously thought to be "nontoxic" by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) was not fully tested during data collection for the FR study. But the FHSA guidelines were meant only to "describe a series of default assumptions, which are used in the absence of evidence to the contrary. However, the guidelines are intended to be sufficiently flexible to incorporate the latest scientific information."

The above quote was written by Michael A. Babich in a 1998 article available on the government's National Center for Biotechnology Information website, which predates the CPSC's "Quantitative Assessment of Potential Health Effects From the Use of Fire Retardant (FR) Chemicals in Mattresses" by eight years.

The incompletely-tested chemicals that were deemed safe by the CPSC report included melamine, which hit the media in 2007 when it was attributed to pet deaths through pet food contamination, and again in 2008 when it showed up in some baby formulas and was labeled as a toxic chemical.

So Are FR Barriers Safe?: The Short Version

bedroom fireThough the CPSC claims a variety of chemicals as "probably" safe in FR mattress barriers, the jury is still out. But the fact remains that to be sold in the U.S., all mattresses must undergo and pass a flammability test. Latex FAQ: So how do you select a bed that's legal and free of potentially toxic chemicals?

All-Natural FR Options

The only way to meet FR standards without industrial chemicals in any type of mattress is to build an all-natural mattress and then sheathe it with an all-natural barrier that is flame-resistant enough to meet FR standards. While chemical solutions are actually flame retardant, or able to discourage and damp existing flame, most all natural solutions are flame resistant, or simply difficult to burn.


The most highly effective all-natural option is high quality organic wool. It's also one of the priciest options on the market. High quality organic wool must come from the back or high on the side of the animal in question (to minimize contact with the debris the live animal runs across in pasture), and come from a sheep fed an organic diet.

In order to maintain its flame-retardant properties, the natural lanolin and keratin in the wool must remain intact. This means washing must be minimized, and chemical washing (which can strip lanolin, especially), is right out.

A single strand of wool, surrounded by air, is difficult to ignite but burns fairly readily. It's the high natural lanolin content combined with careful processing that makes wool an effective FR barrier. Wool that is carded or garneted and then "densified" by needle punching or quilting minimizes the air between the fibers while retaining comfortable loft. Wool in a thickness of about 1.8 oz. per square foot, properly prepared, makes a pricey but highly trustworthy FR option (according to an article by Lynn Holt, latex expert).

Inherant Rayon

A rayon fiber known as inherent rayon has been used to successfully pass flammability tests at a much lower cost and thickness. While pure, high quality wool suitable for use as a fire barrier can run $10 to $15 per linear yard, inherent rayon can be purchased by the manufacturer for about $2 per linear yard. Properly prepared inherent rayon can pass a flammability test at a thickness as minimal as ½ oz. per yard, again according to Lynn Holt.

Claims that inherent rayon is 100% natural are not entirely factual, writes Mr. Holt. Rayon production involves the production of a chemically altered purified cellulose. A spinneret processes an altered, soluble cellulose form into soft filaments that are reconstituted into nearly pure cellulose. Rayon is thus a "regenerated cellulose fiber" bonded to a silica, silicon dioxide, which is wonderfully flame retardant but not entirely "natural" or "eco-friendly." Still, it's an affordable process free of the potentially carcinogenic chemicals discussed above.

Exemption by Prescription

Another option is to have your doctor write a prescription for a non-CFR 1633 compliant mattress. This option exists to allow patients with allergies or sensitivities access to affordable bedding that is medically safe and still comfortable. This option would allow you to sleep on an all-natural bed without the FR barrier. Good for the health unless you have potential fire hazards in your bedroom.

If you take the prescription option, you have the responsibility to make sure that your bedroom environment is safe. Though many latex mattress sites claim that latex does not burn easily, "latex and urethanes both burn hot," and in hot conditions, "latex will self-ignite" according to an interview with Mr. Holt.


The Final Word

In the best of all possible worlds, we recommend an all-natural, chemical free wool FR barrier on an all-natural botanical latex mattress. You'll be sleeping on a mattress made from a sustainable product, protected from potential fire hazards but safe from potentially carcinogenic chemicals.