Polyurethane foam is a petrochemical product made from isocyanates and polyols. Its advantages are that it's lightweight, easy to shape, mildew-resistant and doesn't aggravate allergies. However, the isocyanates are carcinogenic, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). In addition, exposure to isocyanates can cause lung problems like asthma. Polyurethane foam is also highly flammable and contains flame-retardant chemicals added to reduce combustibility. For these reasons, people concerned about chemical exposure often look for alternatives to polyurethane foam.
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Latex Foam Rubber
Natural latex is made from a white liquid that comes from rubber trees. Natural latex foam rubber outperforms flexible polyurethane foam, according to the Polyurethane Foam Association, but the performance comes at the cost of price because it's more expensive to produce. Natural latex is a resilient material that provides "spring," is mould-resistant and resists dust mites. It also has an odour that some people don't like. Synthetic latex foam rubber can be totally synthetic or a combination of natural and man-made blends. Some synthetic rubbers, like neoprene, are highly fire retardant. Synthetic latex foam rubber is less expensive to make than foam rubber made from natural latex.
Soy-based foam is mixed with polyurethane foam to reduce the amount of petrochemicals in the final foam product. Cargill, a Minnesota-based company, manufactures the soybean-based chemicals used to make this foam. The amount of polyurethane foam replaced by soy varies, but generally ranges between 5 and 50 per cent. When larger amounts of soy-based foam are used, the final product emits an unpleasant odour. Foam made from soybeans retains its shape better, according to some manufacturers.
Wool is resistant to mould and doesn't shelter dust mites or bacteria. In addition, wool mattresses don't need to be treated with flame retardants because wool is naturally fire-resistant.
Organic buckwheat hulls are another alternative to polyurethane foam. They're naturally repellent to dust mites and don't contain chemicals because pesticides and chemical fertilisers aren't used to grow them. They provide good support when used in a mattress or pillow, by moulding around the shape of your body. One disadvantage is that buckwheat hulls can make a sound when they're shifting. If the noise bothers you, you can use millet hulls instead. Buckwheat dust can trigger asthma attacks -- make sure the hulls you purchase have been properly cleaned.
Cotton and hemp are also used for cushioning. Cotton provides good support, but it has several disadvantages; it packs down over time and absorbs moisture from perspiration and from the air. Hemp is similar to wool; it's more durable than cotton, mould-resistant and doesn't harbour bacteria.
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- Polyurethane Foam Association: Information on Flexible Polyurethane Foam (PDF)
- OSHA: Isocyanates
- H. R. Allcock Research Group, Pennsylvania State University: Flame Resistant Materials
- Polyurethane Foam Association: Latex Foam Rubber and FPF (PDF)
- Seattle Times: Your Next Sofa May Be Cushioned With Soy
- Sierra Club Green Home: Mattresses, Box Springs and Bed Frames