According to Google, people all over the world want to know, is polyurethane foam toxic? We’ll answer it for you from both the perspective of consumer safety and from the perspective of manufacturing safety.
Is polyurethane foam toxic to consumers?
It can be. Polyurethane foam, once formed, is a stable, non-irritant material (learn more about how PU foam is made here). The potential trouble it brings in consumer products is actually off-gassing, or when the products release VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into the air.
VOCs are bad for the lungs, so the question becomes: just how much VOCs come off of polyurethane foam products? This depends on the manufacturing. In general, foam made from organic materials (e.g. natural latex, cotton) will contain less VOCs. Companies like CertiPUR-US actually test and certify foam for low VOC emissions. The type of foam also makes a difference. A memory foam mattress typically off-gasses more than a traditional inner-spring, simply because more foam material is present.
Off-gassing is frequently a noticeable but harmless phenomenon. However, adults with asthma, allergies, or other respiratory sensitivities may need to take particular care when purchasing polyurethane foam products. You can even consult CertiPUR’s technical guidelines for nontoxic foam when making your purchase. Studies have also linked VOC exposure during infancy to higher rates of asthma and allergies, so caution when purchasing baby mattresses also can’t go wrong.
For your average, healthy adult though? Airing out a new mattress for 1-3 days will typically do the trick.
The more pertinent question regarding polyurethane foam toxicity is actually…
Is polyurethane foam toxic to manufacturers?
Short answer: more so than to consumers. Let’s repeat this and make it clear though: polyurethane foam itself, once formed, is a stable, non-irritant material. We should clarify our list of questions:
Are there hazards present in the industrial manufacturing of polyurethane foam?
Answer: Yes, there are both mechanical hazards (present in all factory workplaces) and chemical hazards (present specifically in polyurethane foam manufacturing).
What are the chemical hazards involved in polyurethane foaming?
Answer: All chemicals used during the PU foaming process should be handled by trained personnel at normal standards of industrial hygiene, meaning gloves, protective eye-wear, and overalls. Isocyanate compounds pose a particular danger to humans in vapor form. Foaming plants should provide proper ventilation and air filtration systems to minimize the presence of harmful TDI or MDI vapors.
Are isocyanates (TDIs and MDIs) carcinogenic?
Answer: There is currently no definitive proof that isocyanate compounds are carcinogenic to humans. While studies have shown they can be carcinogenic to animals, the level of exposure is significantly higher for the animals from the studies.
Are isocyanates respiratory irritants?
Answer: Yes. All isocyanate compounds will irritate the respiratory system. Exposure may develop allergies in people, so we typically recommend that people with preexisting conditions like asthma, allergies, or bronchitis avoid working with isocyanates completely.
Polyurethane foam itself is not toxic, but is it dangerous for any other reason?
Answer: Yes. The main danger of polyurethane foam at the manufacturing stage is actually flammability. Low-density foam has a high surface-to-volume ratio and also high air permeability, making it very susceptible to catching fire. Fresh foam can auto-ignite before it cures (which is why ventilation is so important in slabstock storage racks), and high volumes of foam present in a factory can also escalate the danger of fire. Good working practices are essential in both foaming and conversion plants to prevent plant fires.
Where can I find out more about workplace safety?
Answer: Learn about proper handling precautions from your chemical provider. Here at Sunkist, we take worker safety very seriously, and always recommend built-in exhaust ventilation, TDI scrappers, and vapor filtration systems for ideal industrial hygiene. Websites like OSHA provide plenty of resources for hazard recognition and ought to be considered during the establishment of any polyurethane foaming plant.
Polyurethane foam is not toxic in and of itself. Off-gassing in polyurethane foam products may induce health risks for consumers, but there are methods of prevention. Likewise, isocyanate compounds in the manufacturing of polyurethane foam pose the most chemical hazard, but those hazards can be curbed through proper safety precautions and plant infrastructure.
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