The American SIDS Institute recommends that babies are put to sleep on their backs, but makes no mention of toxic gases lurking on mattresses that are more easily inhaled if a baby sleeps face-down. They state that the SIDS risk is higher with teenage mothers, but fail to discuss the problems of compounding fungus and toxic gases when using a second-hand mattress, as teenage mothers are likely to do. They say not allow the baby near people with respiratory infections but do not mention the link between fevers caused by these infections, body heat activating mattress fungus, and toxic gas. They say not to overdress an infant but again, do not state that the temperature in the bed is linked to creating more toxic gases, only that it increases the risk of SIDS. They say to remove the bumpers from the crib bars but do not say that continuous fresh air is necessary to dilute the concentration of toxic gas hovering over the mattress (1). They do everything but acknowledge the elephant in the room: the mattress the baby is sleeping on.
It has long been known that the risk of SIDS triples from a firstborn baby to a second. It has also been known that SIDS occurrence is higher with belly-sleeping babies. The theory of “re-breathing” exhaled air that is low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide is commonly mentioned, therefore it is recommended that a baby’s room have a ceiling fan and that a baby not use blankets in the crib in order to avoid covering the face.
What is not talked about in America is that the fire retardant chemicals that the US Government requires be included in mattress manufacturing contain phosphorus, arsenic, and antimony (2). When the mattress has been used for about a month, the chemicals begin to offgas and combine with everyday household fungus that grows in every mattress due to sweat, spit-up and shedding skin cells. This combination of chemicals and fungus creates the toxic nerve gases hosphine, arsine, and stibine, which slowly kill a baby in their sleep. These toxic gases are heavier than air and rest as a thin layer across a baby’s mattress. They are breathed in and absorbed through the skin, slowly deactivating an enzyme required to send nerve impulses, including those in charge of breathing. When the lungs quit breathing, the heart stops, and the baby quietly dies without any signs of struggle. This toxic gas theory for crib death (SIDS) was published by British scientist Barry Richardson in 1994 (3) and (4).
The term “crib death” was coined in 1954, not long after these chemicals were introduced to mattresses as flame retardants, and the highest incidents of crib death coincide with the years the highest amount of these chemicals were used. The often misunderstood “Limerick Report” is said to have disproved the toxic gas theory in order to spare the British government millions in liability for infant death, but in fact, the report confirmed the creation of one type of toxic gas: stibine (5).
Our government doesn’t acknowledge that their own insistence of fire retardant chemicals in baby mattresses is the reason why thousands of babies still die each year in one of the most technologically advanced nations on the planet (6). They die on mattresses that don’t even require a label. California, Washington and Maine were the first states to pass legislative bills to ban some (not all, and the above-mentioned chemicals are still included) flame retardant chemicals (7) and since 2004 these PBDEs have been banned in the United States. However, the US now requires that a mattress be able to withstand 30 minutes of open flame exposure before igniting, so it’s two steps forward and one step back with regard to sleeping with poisonous chemicals. These chemicals are dangerous to all humans, and yet we put our most vulnerable little ones to sleep on mattresses covered in them. Adult-sized mattresses contain the very same chemicals, and even more fungus due to being used for years. It’s long been recommended that adults with severe allergies encase their mattresses in plastic covers to prevent exposure to fungus. Organic mattress do not contain these fire retardant chemicals. Though more expensive, organic, cotton-stuffed crib mattresses are easily found (8), and adult-sized mattresses that do not contain the chemicals can bought with a doctor’s prescription. Although cotton will not burst into flame when exposed to fire, these mattresses also come with non-toxic fire protection (9).
Having a later baby sleep on a used mattress means that the amount of fungus growing in the mattress compounds exponentially. This is why the risk of SIDS triples from the first-born baby to the second baby, and goes higher with each subsequent baby (10). In the US, SIDS is two and a half times more likely to take the life of a baby in an African American family, and far more likely to kill babies in Native American and Hispanic than White (11). Is this an ethnic issue or a socioeconomic issue? What races in America are more likely to not have the money to purchase a new mattress for a new baby? Who is more likely to take a used mattress from a family member out of financial necessity? Likewise, SIDS is more likely to take the life of a baby belonging to a single mother.
The baby sleep apnea-monitoring business is booming and it is not in these companies’ financial interest to disclose the real reason, and simple solution, for crib death.
What are you to do with your existing baby crib mattress, even if it’s a hand-me-down? The mattress needs to be securely wrapped in a thick impermeable bag of a type of plastic called polythene in order to prevent gases from the flame retardants from escaping from the mattress, and also to prevent fungus from growing in the mattress. New Zealand used to have the highest per capita crib death rate in the world, perhaps compounded by the common practice of putting sheepskin in the crib, which also contains phosphorus and arsenic.
In 1994 New Zealand began a crib-wrapping campaign that has now brought them to one of the lowest crib death rates in the world. From 1994 to 1999 there were only 400 crib deaths in all of New Zealand, and none of the deaths were on a properly wrapped mattress (12). Proper wrapping means using the polythene bag, putting only a pure cotton blankets between the mattress and the fitted sheet, and never using polyester blankets, sheepskin items, or allowing the baby to wear polyester clothing in the crib. Any blankets in the crib must be 100% cotton or wool, since wool is naturally flame retardant.
Until you wrap your mattress, a baby must not be overdressed to sleep because the amount of toxic gas generated is linked to the baby’s body temperature. Temperature is also the reason why there is a link between vaccinations and SIDS as well as upper respiratory infections and SIDS: the fever caused by vaccinations and illness raised the temperature in the bed, activating the fungus more than usual and creating higher levels of toxic gas.
All used baby mattresses that are not organic need to be wrapped in the polythene bag. All new baby mattresses that are not organic also need to be wrapped in the polythene bag. Organic baby mattresses from Babies-r-Us are not truly organic (edit: they now carry Naturepedic, which are organic and chemical-free) and still must be wrapped in the polythene bag. Mattresses made by Naturepedic are truly organic and do not contain the chemicals that lead to toxic gas and they do not need to be wrapped in polythene. Also, Natura and Nook make some organic mattresses but make sure they are petroleum-free (no memory foam, which is extremely flammable and therefore full of retardant chemicals) since some of their products are not as great as others.
The same polythene bags used in the New Zealand crib-wrapping campaign can be bought online for $32; sizes E and F fit most American baby crib mattress.
Buy them here: http://www.eves-best.com/babesafe-mattress-covers.htm
While you are waiting for your crib wrap to arrive, elevate one end of the baby’s crib two inches off the floor, and put the baby to sleep on the high end with a rolled towel to keep him in place. Any toxic gases generated by his body heat will collect in the lower end of the crib, away from his face. Remove any crib bumpers and turn on a ceiling fan or aim a desk fan at the crib.
3 Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: a possible primary cause, Journal of the Forensic Science Society
4 Toxic gas generation from plastic mattresses and sudden infant death syndrome, Lancet 1995
7 called PDBEs, scan down to “Regulation,” here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polybrominated_diphenyl_ethers
10 Analysis of official British cot death statistics, Office of National Statistics, United Kingdom