Dear Umbra,

I need a new mattress and really want to buy one that is not doused in chemicals — in other words, an organic mattress. I’ve searched a number of sites online and have been horrified by the prices. They are really, really expensive! How bad is it if I buy a regular old affordable mattress? And if it’s really that bad, where can I find an organic one that won’t cost a small fortune?

Wynnewood, Pa.

Dearest Emily,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Hey, I just found a great resource for this kind of question. Pollution in People is a project of several well-respected Washington-state environmental groups, and one aspect of the project is a guide to safer consumer products. Check it out, people.

Chemical-free mattresses: good for sleepers of all stripes.

Photo: iStockphoto

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

From what I’ve read, the current horrible thing to watch out for in mattresses and other upholstered furniture is polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. This is a group of chemicals usually applied as flame retardants, and now recognized as highly bioaccumulative and potentially quite dangerous. It is thought that PBDEs drift out of furniture and into house air and dust, which we then inhale. They have been linked to brain and thyroid problems in rodents and cats, and are considered especially dangerous to children, particularly because they accumulate in fatty tissue and are passed on in breast milk. This year, Washington became the first state in the U.S. to begin phasing out PBDEs, banning a common class of them known as decas. Hooray!

According to Pollution in People, both IKEA and Serta make PBDE-free mattresses. If you find a mattress you particularly like, it may be worth calling the manufacturer to find out if they do use PBDEs or not. As for organic mattresses, I’m afraid I don’t have any inside line on a cheap one. You’ll have to keep looking for sales or secondhand beds.

I did, however, think of a third choice: make your own mattress, or improve your PBDE-free mattress. It’s possible to buy three-inch-thick latex and thick wool mattress covers. Just pile up these cozy items until you reach the comfort you desire.