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Urethane Foam Health Effects

author image Gord Kerr
Gord Kerr's professional background is primarily in business and management consulting. In 1991, Kerr started writing freelance for a small local newspaper, "The Summerland Review," and a leading sailing publication, "Cruising World Magazine." Kerr has a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Wilfred Laurier University.
Urethane Foam Health Effects
A kid is jumping into a pile of packing peanuts. Photo Credit D. Anschutz/Photodisc/Getty Images


Urethane foam is everywhere — it’s under your carpet, in your furniture and your bed, in your walls, on the soles of your shoes and in your athletic helmet. Prolonged exposure to petroleum-based chemicals in products like urethane foam may affect the nervous and immune system and cause illnesses including cancer, neurological disorders, autoimmune weakness, asthma and allergies, infertility, miscarriage and child behavior disorders. Although chemicals in urethane foam are required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be tested for major health effects, the tests do not assess subtle neurological damage to the brain or effects on the a developing fetus, according to Chem-Tox.com.

Health Hazards to Children

Polyurethane foam, which is essentially petroleum, is the predominant filling for baby mattresses and often contains dangerous chemical ingredients made of formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and other toxins. Because young children are very vulnerable and may spend over 50 percent of their early life on a baby mattress, there is a concern about the health effects of this product, according to HealthyChild.com. Some crib mattresses emit mixtures of chemicals capable of causing cardiac arrhythmias, difficulty breathing, chest discomfort, irritation of mucous membranes, headache, coughing, asthma and allergic reaction, dizziness, weakness, fatigue, nausea, blurred vision, and reduced pulmonary function, as listed on EPA manufacturer material safety data sheets for polyurethane foam.

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Toxicity and Death from Fire

Urethane foam is used for insulation because of its thermal properties and ease of use —it comes in the form of a spray which hardens. The danger of using urethane products is when the foam burns. It gives off toxic gasses and smoke, which makes it difficult to evacuate and put out a fire. Known as "solid gasoline” in the insurance industry, once a polyurethane fire starts, it usually results in a total loss of property and loss of life, according to Federated Insurance. CBC news reported a lethal fire in Rhode Island resulting from polyurethane foam insulation, the same material used in sofas and mattresses, that created an inferno of searing heat and thick, toxic smoke. Firefighters said that tragedies involving burning polyurethane foam are common. At least two people each day die in fires from urethane foam, says the National Association of State Fire Marshal’s George Miller.

Effect on Neonatal Brain

To minimize the flammable hazard of urethane and polyurethane foam, industrial toxic fire retardants are often added to the foam. The most common fire retardant is pentaBDE, a toxin associated with neuro-behavioral alterations, hyperactivity and behavioral problems, according to HealthyChild.com. Furthermore, PentaBDE does not bind to the foam, and leaches into the surroundings, according to a study published in 2001 “Toxicological Sciences” showing that neonatal exposure to pentaBDE can affect brain development.


Isocyanates, used in the production of polyurethane foams, are the largest cause of occupational asthma. The use of polyurethanes in furniture, cushions, pillows and bedding has been found to increase asthma in children and increased usage also corresponds to the development of asthma in ethnic minorities that adopt a western life-style, warns Dr. Harry Morrow-Brown on his website, AllergiesExplained.com.

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