Government-Mandated Flame-Retardant Mattresses

Two days ago we received delivery of a new mattress. Upon initially lying down to go to sleep on it, I detected a strange odor and reasoned that it must be emanating from either the new sheets, the new mattress cover, or the new mattress, but was too tired to think much about it. The odor became increasingly bothersome throughout the night, and in the morning I determined that it was most likely coming from the mattress itself.

Some web searching suggested that this was not unusual, and that common wisdom was to let the mattress air out for a day or two (or four) before sleeping on it. This was the second mattress we had purchased from the same shop, and nobody had mentioned anything about this to us. The first mattress, though, was left unused for several weeks before we moved into the house, so it likely had time to air out on its own.

My web searching also turned up some unexpected information on the potential toxicity of mattresses.

In 1972, the United States federal government decided to help prevent burning cigarettes set mattresses ablaze by issuing 16 CFR Part 1632, Requirements for Mattresses and Mattress Pads. Accompanied by a prescribed test procedure, this government mandate required mattress manufacturers to construct their mattresses to be able to endure limited exposure to burning cigarettes without catching on fire themselves. Since traditional mattress materials were not inherently flame-retardant, manufacturers complied by adding flame-retardant chemicals.

In 2006, the government decided that guarding against burning cigarettes was insufficient, and expanded their mattress construction criteria to include guarding against various open flames in 16 CFR Part 1633, Standard for the Flammability (Open Flame) of Mattress Sets. The new test criteria involves exposing the mattress to open flame generated by a burner device for a total of 30 minutes. (Details are listed within 16 CFR Part 1633 itself.) Manufacturers complied to this demand of enduring a half-hour of fire by adding yet more flame-retardant chemicals.

So our mattresses are very unlikely to engulf us in flames. But what about the chemicals being added to the mattresses? Are these safe for us to sleep on night after night? Since the government cares so much about us not setting our beds on fire, surely they would have interest in what chemicals are employed to fire-proof the mattresses?

They did conduct some thorough research on the extent to which the various chemicals used in mattress construction could be absorbed by its users, but when it comes to actually making a decision on what chemicals go into the bed, they leave that up to the mattress manufacturers. The 16 CFR Part 1633 Questions & Answers document explains:

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure that its products do not present an unreasonable risk to consumers. Thus, manufacturers should conduct the appropriate exposure testing and risk assessment to ensure that any new products that are placed on the market are not hazardous substances.

Some of the chemicals involved are blatantly harmful in large quantities. But are the quantities conveyed through a mattress large enough to be problematic? Should we be concerned? There have been reports of people experiencing a variety of unexpected symptoms after getting a new 16 CFR Part 1633-compliant mattress, but there seem to be plenty more people who have never noticed anything wrong at all. We ourselves slept on a Part 1633-compliant mattress for five years without even realizing it.

If you want to avoid these flame-retardant chemicals in your mattress, there are ways around it. Standard off-the-shelf mattresses are required by federal law to be flame-retardant, but with a prescription from your doctor you can have one special-made that does not use flame-retardant chemicals. (One of our family doctors opined that there are lots of other things more useful to do for the overall health of your body than to get a chemically untreated mattress.) You could also buy unassembled mattress components and make your own mattress. At least one retailer sells beds that keep the chemical treatment in a sealed and removable portion of the bed.

In the end, we can thank the federal government for creating potentially-questionable regulations that enable us to continue to sleep while smoking cigarettes and enjoying sundry other forms of open flame…

Tips on Socializing a Border Collie

These are some notes I took following a conversation with the staff at a local dog training organization:

  • If your dog is anxious or agitated around strangers, you need to slowly acclimate her to being around other people.
  • Do not reenforce fearful behavior. If she jumps up on you or cowers around you, she is seeking confidence and reassurance from you. It’s best to ignore her in these situations, or instruct her to do something else that she has learned to do on command. It’s only okay for her to jump up on you if you say it’s okay, not just any time she wants.
  • Around strangers, if she becomes agitated, keep her on a short leash: an inch or so of slack is enough for her to learn that she should prefer staying right next to you instead of running away from or toward the other people.
  • Have your house guests throw her treats from a distance, so she learns to associate visitors with treats. Preferably use high quality, high value treats that she especially enjoys (but rarely gets).
  • Do not exhibit fear or anxiety yourself; she will pick up on that, and she needs you to be a strong leader.
  • If she gets out of control around other people walking on the sidewalk, try to practice that on purpose rather than avoid it. Preferably get her around people on the sidewalk who are walking away from her, rather than toward her. They will still be in the vicinity, but less threatening.
  • Some of her behavior may be related to natural herding instinct. Unless you plan to put her into service as a sheepdog, it’s best to train that out of her, as much as possible.
  • One benefit of her herding instinct is that she protects the herd. Once she accepts someone into her herd, they become someone she protects, not someone she fears.

A Check from Oracle

Today I received in the mail a check for $190 from Oracle Corporation.

I graduated from high school in the summer of 1998. As a graduation gift, my grandfather gave me $500 to invest in the stock market, in hopes that I would learn something about business and stocks. I had spent the past year becoming very seriously interested in computer programming, and the hip new programming system at the time was Java, produced by Sun Microsystems. So, without knowing much about the stock market, or even about the financials of Sun Microsystems, I decided to put the whole $500 into Sun stock, on the basis of liking their products. I was able to buy ten shares.

I asked for the stock certificate to be mailed to me personally, and, like Balki Bartokomous on Perfect Strangers, I framed the stock certificate and hung it on the wall. I was not particularly interested in making money through the stock, but rather, was delighted to be a part-owner of my favorite company.

About six months later, in December of 1998, my grandfather very unexpectedly passed away. I knew he had not been feeling well, but he was generally a very healthy person. There is much I could write about how my life changed after this (in short, I became much more aware of spending time on things that are long-term important), but the relevancy to the present story is that I suddenly no longer saw my stock as just a symbol of company ownership; it was now the last gift that my grandfather gave to me.

A few weeks later, I happened to be browsing a newspaper, and looked up in the financial section the current value of Sun stock. To my surprise, it had doubled since I bought it, and my ten shares were now worth $1000. Months went by, and Sun Microsystems, a major provider of networking hardware during the dotCom boom, continued doing very well. They went through several stock splits: my ten shares turned into twenty, then forty, then eighty. Eventually, my $500 investment was worth around $6000.

I imagine that if my grandfather had still be around, he would have advised me to sell the stock. But I continued to view it more as a cherished gift than as a way to make money, and held onto the stock.

Years passed, and the dotCom boom morphed into the dotCom bust. The value of the stock sank and sank and sank, eventually getting down to around the same price that I originally paid for it.

In 2008, I received a letter from Sun, stating that they were initiating a reverse stock split, and I was advised to send my shares back to them, in exchange for a smaller number of shares at the same value. I complied, but rather than getting another certificate, I received a notice that I would not be getting a paper certificate, but electronic-only shares. It was disappointing to lose my physical stock document, but I still owned the stock itself.

In 2009, I learned that Sun was being bought by Oracle Corporation. Another disappointment. Oracle may be a great company, but there would surely be changes; some product lines may continue on, but the company that I thought was so neat in 1998 was coming to an end.

Not reading much of the details of the transaction, I assumed that I would get stock in Oracle now, but this wasn’t the case. Instead, I received a check from Oracle, with a note explaining that Sun stockholders were being given $9.50 per share of Sun.

So now I have $190, which, in some sense, is what remains of my grandfather’s gift. He wanted me to learn about business, and about investing, and about the stock market. I like to think I’ve learned a lot about these topics over the past twelve years, though you couldn’t tell it by looking at my $190 check. I held on to that stock despite common sense, because I valued it more sentimentally. I suppose there is nothing wrong with doing that, if that’s what you want to do, though I now realize that it wasn’t the stock itself that I cherished, but rather memories of my grandfather.