You might remember a fairy tale from your childhood about a princess who could detect a pea at the bottom of a stack of mattresses, a feat so impressive it won her the hand of a handsome prince.
I had no idea, when I first decided it was time to get Big Kid Beds for my still-small kids, that I'd be as much of a princess as the princess in that story.
But lo and behold, buying a mattress for your kids, let alone an actual bed, isn't so easy.
Sure, there are a lot of mattress stores -- throw a rock in my L.A. neighborhood and you'll hit one. But thanks to a 2005 law meant to protect consumers, specifically very small consumers, every one of these mattress stores sells essentially the same thing: a mattress treated with toxic materials so it won't catch on fire.
Sounds crazy, I know. But the more I looked into mattresses, the more worried I became. Back in 2005, a well-meaning consumer group trying to prevent kids and babies dying in mattresses that too easily caught on fire, got a law passed in California to address the issue. All mattresses sold here had to be flame retardant to the point that they wouldn't catch on fire even if a lit candle, or other such open flame, dropped on top of them.
So mattress companies started to use chemicals in their mattresses, or sprayed onto them, to keep them from combusting. And to keep from having to sell one kind of mattress in California, and another in other states, they just started treating ALL their mattresses with these chemicals. The chemicals leach off the mattresses in the form of gasses, and nobody really knows just how much toxic exposure we're getting from them, though the mattress industry insists we're all safe.
Most of those chemicals have been banned in Europe for years, and we do know that they don't do very nice things to laboratory animals.
If you think this sounds too alarmist for you, consider this: for years, a lot of furniture and other household furnishings in California had been treated with another flame-retarding chemical, PDBE for short, that is so toxic it later wound up being completely banned by U.S. law in 2007. Californians already have higher levels of this chemical in their bloodstream than anyone else on the planet. According to Friends of the Earth, "last year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned against the use of fire retardant chemicals in baby products and furniture. This is because scientists around the world have linked these chemicals to hormone disruption, neurological and developmental impairments, cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, such as attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and a host of other health disorders." You can read more about it here (Friends of the Earth) and here (The Washington Post).
The very same group that pushed for approval of the original law now wants it changed, out of fear the mattress industry is poisoning people.
Other moms I queried on the web quickly informed me that there was an alternative: organic mattresses. Organic mattresses are typically made of cotton and/or wool, which believe it or not are naturally flame retardant (think of firemen's wool-lined coats), or made of natural latex, thanks to some kind of rubber tree. So they comply with the law, but aren't toxic. Yet these organic alternatives don't come cheap. Some are twice the cost, or more, of conventional mattresses.
I did a lot of research and finally found a U.S.-made organic mattress that didn't cost quite so much as most of those on the market. Then I spent more weary hours on the web hunting down a company that would sell me said mattresses with no sales tax, and charge me no delivery fee.
And I even got waterproof organic mattress pads -- which really don't cost much more than a good conventional pad -- that uses a food-grade waterproof substance to keep the mattress dry.
But the sad and sobering fact about all this is that I wound up spending considerably more on the mattresses than the high quality all-wood twin bed frames. And I'm even considering an organic mattress pad for my queen bed, just so there's a barrier and I'm not sleeping directly on my wholly in-organic TempurPedic memory foam. (I called the company and asked how they make their mattresses flame retardant. "I can't tell you, it's proprietary," the spokesman said, "but I can assure you it's not toxic." I wasn't exactly satisfied with that answer.)
Now, my kids are sleeping on two very comfy mattresses that don't give off chemical gasses. Maybe you think I've drunk the Kool-Aid when it comes to mattress safety, but I gotta say I'm sleeping easier ... even if I'm poorer. I just hope they reverse or modify this crazy law, which seems like it tossed us all out of the fire and into the frying pan... because all of us, not just my kids, deserve sweet dreams.