Ever heard of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? These are carbon-based chemicals that can evaporate into the air under the right conditions such as high temperatures caused by sunlight or body heat.

VOCs are mostly found in cars and contribute to that pleasant but dangerous “new car smell” inside a new car. The most prevalent VOCs found in new cars are benzene (a human carcinogen), ethylbenzene (a systemic toxic agent) and acetone (a mucosal irritant). And yes, you inhale these dangerous chemicals inside a car.

Unfortunately for us, hundreds of household items (furniture, paint and electronics, among others) emit VOCs. Scientists know that at high levels, VOCs can be dangerous to our health.

New research now shows mattresses emit higher levels of VOCs while you sleep.

This new study published in the biweekly peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology measured the emission rates of the gaseous compounds released by several types of polyurethane mattresses under simulated sleeping conditions.

It found levels of some VOCs that might be of concern to children and infants. Happily, there’s no evidence of adverse health effects from inhaling these VOCs so far.

During sleep, people will inhale more VOCs because of the close proximity of their nose and mouth to mattresses and bedding that emit these compounds. Exposure to high levels of VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, and even cancer.

Prof. Yael Dubowski, who holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering Science, and her colleagues, wanted to measure the levels of several VOCs released by eight different infant, toddler and youth polyurethane mattresses and compare these to the risk levels for the compounds.

They also wanted to investigate how temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide concentration affect emissions. These environmental factors increase when people lie on a mattress for a few hours compared to the mattress alone.

Analyzing pieces of polyurethane mattresses using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, they found the eight mattresses tested released almost similar amounts of VOCs.

The researchers also found that the mattresses released more VOCs when temperature was elevated to simulate body heat.

The team estimated the doses of VOCs inhaled by adults, infants and children. They found most were well below the cancerous and noncancerous risk reference levels for these compounds.

On the other hand, inhalation of some compounds by infants and young children could reach levels of concern. These compounds are acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and benzene.

Researchers emphasized the need for further studies on the possible health effects of chronic, low-level exposure to VOCs.

Well-manufactured polyurethane is no danger at all, according to scientists, because its dangerous components are rendered inert or non-toxic if successfully bonded. But not all polyurethane is well-made. The main cause of the health dangers from polyurethane that q isn’t well-made are compounds called “isocyanates.”

Isocyanates released by polyurethane-based products can trigger adverse reactions such as irritation of the skin, the eyes, nose and throat. It can also cause breathing difficulties and chest tightness. Polyurethane is a main ingredient of paints.

Isocyanates are the main contributor to occupational asthma. This is especially true among people who produce or use paint and sealant applicators in various industries.

Extreme exposure to isocyanates can cause blindness, disabilities and even death. Isocyanates emitted by an accident from a chemical plant disaster in India killed thousands of people in 1984.

This immense tragedy was the infamous “Bhopal disaster” in December 1984. More than 500,000 people in small towns around a Union Carbide India pesticide plant were exposed to highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas. Up to 8,000 Indians died in this horror that is the world's worst industrial disaster.