Baby's Bedding: Is It Creating Toxic Nerve Gases?
by Joanne B. Quinn, RMA, PhD

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 61, Spring 2002.]

Research done over the past 13 years in Great Britain and New Zealand indicates that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is an environmental poisoning in the crib. In 1988, Barry Richardson, a British chemist specializing in deterioration and preservation of materials, and Peter Mitchell, a marquee specialist, were working on Mitchell's deteriorating marquee, awnings and party tents. Mitchell's marquee supplier told him that the chemicals in awnings and tents were the same chemicals that had been approved for use in baby mattresses. Mitchell also learned from Richardson that these same chemicals could be converted into nerve gas. Mitchell and Richardson decided maybe there was a connection here to SIDS. The research by Richardson began immediately.

The three chemicals of concern are phosphorus used in the baby mattress cover, and arsenic and antimony added as preservatives and fire retardants. Richardson has determined that a common household fungus, Scopulariopsis brevicaulis, gets established in the mattress from the baby's sweating, spitting up and so on. Once established, the fungus begins to consume these three chemicals in the mattress. This results in the production of three nerve gasses: phosphine, arsine and stibine, all of which can be very deadly, especially to infants.

In late 1988 Richardson asked local coroners to cooperate by releasing mattresses on which SIDS babies had died. He received 200 mattresses of all varieties: foam, plastic, fabric and netted. By June 1989 all mattresses had been tested with the following results:

  • Every mattress was infected with the S. Brevicaulis fungus as an organism and spores.
  • All mattresses had one or more of the chemicals phosphorus, arsenic or antimony.
  • Each mattress generated one or more of the nerve gasses (phosphine, arsine or stibine) when brought to blood/body temperature.

At this time, Richardson analyzed six blood samples of the SIDS babies who died on mattresses with antimony and found high levels of antimony in each sample. In addition, Richardson learned that 95 percent of mattresses tested had been used by a previous baby.

Meanwhile, a New Zealand chemist, T.J. Sprott, was questioning the role of chemicals in the baby's environment. He learned of Richardson's research and concurred that nerve gas could also be poisoning babies in New Zealand. He established the guidelines for wrapping mattresses, known as the Cotlife 2000 Specifications. (For additional information, log on to www.cotlife2000.com.) These specifications involved wrapping the baby's mattress with a gas impermeable plastic to keep the gasses from contaminating the sleeping area and, in addition, using cotton bedding. Since 1996, New Zealand has wrapped 100,000 baby mattresses to these specifications. There have been no reported deaths to date on these wrapped mattresses.

SIDS is called the "mystery disease." Understanding the gas theory explains away the mystery by answering all of the following perplexing questions:

Q: Why do SIDS babies show no symptoms?
A: The lethal dose of nerve gas doesn't make them "ill." It acts by shutting down the nervous system, stopping heart function and breathing. Research has shown neurochemical deficits in SIDS babies that are consistent with poisoning by nerve gas.

Q: Why are babies at higher risk after illness or vaccination?
A: The fever that results increases the temperature in the crib environment. This stimulates fungus activity and nerve gas production tenfold or more.

Q: Why does the rate of crib death rise from one sibling to the next?
A: In a reused mattress, fungus established in prior use cause toxic gas generation to commence sooner and in greater volume.

Q: Why are babies at higher risk in families where births are close together?
A: Once again, the fungus in the mattress from the previous use will be quickly activated, producing gas sooner.

Q: Why are SIDS rates higher in the winter?
A: Windows are kept shut, creating poor ventilation around the crib. Gasses are less likely to dissipate. Babies are often bundled in blankets during the winter, trapping gasses close to their bodies.

Q: Why are babies sleeping face down at higher risk?
A: Stibine gas is formed from the interaction of the S. Brevicaulis fungus and the antimony in the mattress. This gas is very heavy and hangs right on the surface of the mattress. A baby sleeping face down will breathe this gas directly and is more likely to inhale a lethal dose.

Q: Why are boy babies at higher risk for SIDS?
A: Most boys have a higher metabolic rate than girls, thus their body temperature can be somewhat higher than girls. The rate of gas generation increases rapidly with increasing temperature.

Q: Why does SIDS sometimes occur during bed-sharing on an adult mattress?
A: Phosphorus, arsenic or antimony can be found in most mattresses, allowing the generation of the nerve gasses. Adults are not as susceptible to gas poisoning as infants.

Q: Why was SIDS rare before 1950?
A: Prior to 1950, harmful chemicals were not added to mattresses. It was postwar technology that prompted the common use of phosphorus as a plasticizer, arsenic as a preservative and antimony as a fire retardant. In England and Wales the SIDS statistics from 1953 onward increased in parallel with the increasing concentration of antimony in mattress covers. In addition, prior to 1950 people commonly used soap for baby laundry, whereas now detergent and fabric softeners are commonplace. Detergent contains nitrogen and phosphorus compounds on which the fungus feeds.

Q: Why does SIDS generally occur between the ages of 2 months and 1 year?
A: It takes time for the fungus in the mattress to flourish and start generating gas. However, younger babies can die if they are sleeping on a mattress that has recently been used by an older sibling and has established, flourishing fungus. As babies get older, the gas exposure gives them a headache causing them to move around, wake their parents and stand up in their crib.

Q: Why is SIDS non-existent in some other countries?
A: There used to be virtually no crib deaths in Japan. Japanese traditionally used untreated cotton futons for babies. Recently, Japan has started to adopt Western baby care practices, mattresses, etc., and the crib death rate has begun to rise. SIDS is practically non-existent in Russia, as well. There, it is common place to cover the mattress with rubber sheeting. This rubber is gas impermeable, inhibits fungal growth and is free of phosphorus, arsenic and antimony.

Q: Why have SIDS rates fallen over the past five years, but are now leveling out?
A: Five years ago the Back to Sleep campaign was introduced encouraging parents to position their babies on their backs. This has likely saved many babies from stibine (the gas from antimony) poisoning. As was said earlier, this gas is heavy and hangs right on the surface of the mattress where face-down babies breathe it directly. However, babies sleeping on their backs are still exposed to the lighter nerve gasses: arsine and phosphine. In a warm environment phosphine can be similar to the density of air, and easily inhaled by a baby sleeping on its back. In addition, face-up sleeping is not as effective in a cot or bassinet with enclosed sides, because the gasses cannot flow away.

To prevent these nerve gasses from reaching the baby, New Zealand CotLife2000 Specifications recommend doing all of the following:

  • Cover the top, all sides and most of the underside of the mattress with a polyethylene sheeting that is at least 5 mil thick and free of phosphorus, arsenic and antimony. Leave several venting holes on the underside of the mattress cover so that the gas can escape.
  • Use fleecy pure cotton mattress cover over the polyethylene sheeting and tuck it in securely.
  • Make the bed using pure cotton sheets and blankets.
  • Do not use any of the following as baby bedding: sheepskin, moisture-resistant mattress protector, acrylic under blanket, sleeping bag or duvet.
  • Clean mattress covers by wiping with pure soap and water. Do not use chemical bleaches or sterilizers.

In addition, contact Sen. Tom Daschle by mail or e-mail: Tom_Daschle@Daschle.Senate.Gov. Send the letter below or write an original requesting legislation be sponsored prohibiting the use of these chemicals in baby mattresses. We can make a difference.

Joanne Quinn is a registered medical assistant with a PhD in holistic nutrition. She is the Executive Director of the Educational Learning Strategies Foundation and field advisor for the National Foundation for Alternative Medicine.

Editor's Note: Subsequent research has failed to establish the link between baby mattresses and SIDS that this article asserts. Midwifery Today, Inc. does not endorse the research cited above, but presents it as part of the overall effort to prevent SIDS. Other resources you might find of interest include:

References

  1. Cullen, W.R., Reiner, K.J. (1989). Arsenic speciation in the environment. Chem Rev 89: 713-764.
  2. Decreased kainite receptor binding in the arcuate nucleus of the sudden infant death syndrome. J Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology (56)11: 1253-1261.
  3. Filiano, J.J., Kinney, H.C. (1992). Arcuate nucleus hypoplasia in the sudden infant death syndrome. J Neuropathol Exp Neurol 51: 394-403.
  4. Fitzpatrick, M.G. (1998). SIDS and the toxic gas theory (letter) New Zealand Med J, pp. 482-483.
  5. Fowkes, S. (1999). Interview by J. Hattersly.
  6. Gibson, A.A.M. (1992). Current epidemiology of SIDS. J Clinical Pathology. 45(suppl):7-10.
  7. Greenwald, M.J. (1984). SBS and SIDS. Annuals of Emergency Medicine.
  8. Knobel, H.H., Yang, W.S., Cjen, C.J. (1996). Risk factors of sudden infant death in Chinese babies. Amer J Epidemiology (144)11: 1070-1073.
  9. New Zealand Minister of Health: May 18, 2001.
  10. Rajs, J., Hammarquiest, F. (1998). Sudden infant death in Sweden. Acta Paediatr Scand. 77:812-820.
  11. Richardson, B.A. (1990). Cot mattress biodeterioration and SIDS. Lancet 335:670.
  12. Richardson, B.A. (1994). Sudden infant death syndrome: A possible primary cause. J Forensic Science Society. 34: 199-204.
  13. Rognum, T.O., Sanstad, O.D. Ovasater, S., Olarsen, B., (1988). Elevated levels of hypoxanthine in vitreous humor indicate prolonged cerebral hypoxia in victims of sudden infant death syndrome. Pediatrics. 82: 615-617.
  14. Sears, W. (1995). SIDS: A Parent's Guide to Understanding and Preventing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Boston: Little, Brown.
  15. Skadberg, B.T., Morild, I., Markestad, T. (1998). Abandoning prone sleeping: Effect on the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. J Pediatrics.(132)2: 240-243.
  16. Smith, L., Hattersley, J. (2000). The Infant Survival Guide. Petaluma: Smart Publications.
  17. Sprott, T.J. (1996). The Cot Death Cover-up? Auckland: Penguin Environmental.
  18. Sprott, T.J. (1998). Cot Life 2000.
  19. Sprott, T.J. (1999). Cot Life 2000.
  20. Sprott, T.J. (May 1999). Cot Life 2000.
  21. Waters, K.A., Meehan, B., Huang, J.Q., Gravel, R.A., et. al. (1999). Neuronal apoptosis in sudden infant death syndrome. Pediatric Research (45)2: 166-172.