It’s no surprise that our world today uses a ton of plastics. Plastics are used in so many different types of products – from food containers to air mattresses and car parts. First produced over 100 years ago, synthetic plastics are polymers made of carbon and other elements. Today, the plastics industry is one of the most rapidly growing industries in the United States.
Although we have certainly benefited from the plastics industry – particularly in the form of convenience – we are also the first generation to have been subjected to an inundation of dangerous chemicals as a result. Plastics can contain literally thousands of possible additives/chemicals that affect the hardness, softness, and texture of products. Unfortunately, manufacturers are not disclosing the chemicals that comprise different plastics.
Due to the nature of air mattresses, they need to be flexible, comfortable, and waterproof, so plastic has been the material of choice to use in their development. However, not all plastics are created equal. Some plastics are more hazardous than others.
Plasticizers Are Generally Phthalates
First, let’s take a look at chemical additives in plastic. One type of chemical additive commonly added to plastics is “plasticizers.” Plasticizers are colorless “softening agents making it easier for the polymer chains to move and be flexible.” In other words, it increases the elasticity of a material. This flexibility is especially important when it comes to air mattresses as they need to fold into something small making them easy to carry and pack.
Plasticizing additives are generally phthalate chemicals. Phthalates are harmful because they are easily released from products as their molecules aren’t always chemically bound to the plastic. They also are readily absorbed into the bloodstream where they can accumulate. Phthalates are known to disrupt normal hormone function and are linked to many poor health conditions.
Are PVC Air Mattresses Safe?
Many air mattresses on the market today are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. PVC is the second most widely used plastic resin and is one of the most toxic and hazardous plastics. PVC is a known human carcinogen. PVC can take a long time to off-gas, causing a strong odor to come from the air mattress. However, it’s more than a strong odor about which we should be concerned. PVC can contain “up to 55% plasticizing additives by weight.” The plasticizers, commonly phthalates, soften the PVC to make it bendable. PVC is also harmful to the environment. When incinerated, PVC emits harmful chemicals into the air.
Can you imagine the number of toxic chemicals you breathe in and absorb into your skin each night if you sleep on a new air mattress made of PVC? It’s no wonder people can experience symptoms such as migraines, skin irritations, and congestion after sleeping on an air mattress.
So if PVC is extremely toxic, is there a safer plastic that can replace it?
Is TPU a Safer Alternative for Air Mattresses?
Because of the toxicity of PVC, more air mattresses are starting to be made with Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU). TPU is elastic and melt-processable. There are different chemical classes of TPU: polyester, polyether, and polycaprolactone. And there are different types of polyurethanes. Polyurethane used to make foam is toxic, but food-grade polyurethane is less toxic.
Due to TPU’s more desirable chemical properties, TPU is increasingly being used for medical applications. One reason is that TPU doesn’t require all of the plasticizers that PVC does. It also does not require toxic chemical treatment before use. It can be attached via a heat-bonding process instead. In addition, TPU is biodegradable which is better for the environment.
Well-manufactured polyurethane doesn’t seem to pose a danger. “Its dangerous components are rendered inert or non-toxic if successfully bonded.” However, if the bonding is not one-hundred percent, it can leave some of its ingredients active which can pose a problem. One main ingredient is isocyanates. “Isocyanates released by polyurethane-based products can cause various reactions such as the irritation of the skin, the eyes, nose and throat, breathing difficulties and chest tightness.”
Stay Away From PVC Air Mattresses
I would recommend staying away from air mattresses made of PVC as they can be highly toxic and create a wide arrange of health symptoms. Air mattresses made of TPU seem to be a better alternative for now until there is an even safer material option. However, depending on the type of polyurethane and how well it is manufactured may determine how sensitive one might be to it. As someone who has multiple chemical sensitivity, I know each person has a different tolerance level.
When purchasing a new air mattress, I recommend airing it out before using it, whether it claims to be less toxic or not.