Now, in comparison to the last few posts, this will be less like a story from history. This post is more like a story to tell your friends over dinner (If, of course, your friends are particularly forgiving)!
How often do you think about memory foam?
I’m willing to bet the general answer would be not that much, unless you’re very passionate about your pillow and think of it often. I’m sure that’s the answer for some of you. However, as a daughter of a plastics engineer and an fiber-optics engineer, there are some topics I’ve been subject to since I was very young that other kids were never encouraged to think about…
One thing I’ve known since I was pretty little, for example, is that all polymers (plastics) decay. The rate may be so subtle, so harmless that it is essentially zero, but decay it still does. All plastics react with heat. This may seem obvious, as we have all melted plastic at some point in our lives, but keep in mind this rule applies to the plastic reusable baking cups for cupcakes, the water bottles we put in the hot dishwasher, etc. All of those release some sort of gas or chemical reaction, even if they aren’t actually melting, and the effects of this are still too new to understand.
Given that information, what does this actually have to do with memory foam? Taken in context, the craze of memory foam and the pervasiveness of it in our homes has really only occurred in roughly the last 20 years.1 When considering the effects any given product has on humans, 20 years is often not enough. Even lead poisoning can take longer to show its face, and we all know that products with lead paint can lead to serious problems in brain development and function. So, we all love the squishyness, the conformity, the comfort memory foam mattresses, toppers, and pillows give us. But what else might we be getting from this porous plastic we trust so much?
In comparison to rigid (hard) plastics, foams in general produce more gas more easily as they decay because foams themselves are part solid, part gas. 2 However, in order to know what kind of gasses are produced by the foam (which is constantly and forever decaying, and therefore releasing this) we need to know what goes into making the foam.
The “HAP” emissions something produces is the Hazardous Air Pollution emission. While we may usually associate that kind of language to some cartoonish smokestacks of the industrial era, that includes the gasses that plastics release. What hazardous gasses is your pillow emitting onto your head as you spend perhaps 10 hours a night resting on it? 3 Well, here’s a few:
Methylene Chloride: Like all of the following chemicals, we are exposed to this in small amounts whenever we spend time around memory foam. However, these chemicals all cause problems when inhaled, and for methylene chloride in particular, when exposed for long periods of time. That includes the fact that we sleep, for long hours, every day, every year, for years on these foams. Methylene chloride, when exposed to chronically like such, depress the central nervous system, which cause a host of mild-to-not-so-mild problems, depending on the exposure. In animals, it’s been found to even effect organ function.4 That’s a little rough.
Methyl Chloroform: While not as inherently as dangerous as the name sounds, if inhaled (which is what we do when we sleep!), this will depress our central nervous system and cause some minor problems (dizzyness, confusion) 5. In large amounts it can be extremely dangerous and even lethal…. and you may know this chemical as the one that used to be in white-out, until people realized kids were huffing it to get high and then dying. Yeah, that chemical. Needless to say, it was in higher concentration in white-out than in our pillows, but do you recognize that smell now?
Toluene Diisocyanate: According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 6 , One could not be exposed to any safe amount of Toluene Diisocyanate due to risk of it being carcinogenic. Of course, just because we can’t work with something doesn’t mean we can’t expose the most important, sensitive part of our body (or better yet, our whole body) to it for years on end!
Now, none of the above is intended to scare. None of the above is even intended to influence any part of your life! I don’t care if you never buy another memory foam item again, I don’t care if you close your laptop right now and buy a new memory foam anything. This is just for the sake of knowing. And I know, a lot of people don’t understand why knowing without acting wouldn’t count as a waste of time… but if you didn’t know that ALL plastic CONSTANTLY DECAYS, well now you know! It’s falling apart in front of your very eyes! And if you didn’t know that you are chemically conducting an experiment on plastic every time you make a cupcake with those silicone bakery items, now you know! And if you didn’t know that foam is actually both gas AND solid,
now you know!
Go tell someone else!