Die, rumor, die! Offgassing is not the cause of SIDS

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

Leah wrote in: “I was wondering if you could shed some light on mattress wrapping to prevent off gassing and the New Zealand SIDS statistics. If there anything to this?”

Like a zombie rising from the grave to eat your brain, the “offgassing” hypothesis of SIDS is one of those rumors that just won’t stay in its grave. We can thank the internet for its unique ability to keep obviously wrong ideas alive, forever and ever. Every once in a while, someone stumbles on hoary old posts and “news” stories, reposts them on Twitbook or Faceter, and the idea arises again. There has got to be something better for all of us to be doing with our time!

It all started in 1989 when someone claimed that he had figure out the cause of SIDS. It was chemicals (fire retardants) used in crib mattresses, interacting with a fungus that released toxic gases. I’m not linking the sites that claim this, because I have no wish to perpetuate the rumor– if you want to find out more, Dr. Google will be your willing ally for your adventures. You’ll see that there are several sites that all reference each other, rather than any substantial published studies; many sell special mattress wrappings to keep the Evil Gasses at bay. You’ll see claims that no baby ever dies on a specially-wrapped mattress, and that the government and doctors has been hiding these statistics (because, presumably, we’re all in the pocket of “big mattress” and “fire fighters”.) You’ll also see claims, on those same sites, that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and other, shall we say, “colorful” health beliefs. Seriously, if you do end up Googling this, you’ll want to put on a fresh tin foil hat first.

The facts of the matter are summed up here, in a document from First Candle. They’re a non-profit dedicated to fighting SIDS and providing support for grieving families. They point out some simple facts: the rate of SIDS dropped after “The Chemicals” were added to mattresses to prevent fires;  the fungus claimed to be associated with SIDS is almost never actually present in any mattresses; wrapping mattresses has never been shown to prevent SIDS, babies have in fact died on wrapped mattresses; and SIDS occurs at a similar rate in countries that do and don’t use flame-retardant chemicals in mattresses. There’s more to it, including summaries of multiple, well-funded investigations into the theory, but you get the point: there’s just no evidence, whatsoever, that toxic gasses from unwrapped mattresses are killing babies. Those that support the theory are not telling the truth.

There’s been good progress fighting SIDS in the 25 years since the “offgassing hypothesis” appeared – we now understand a lot of ways families can protect their children, and SIDS rates have fallen dramatically. This idea wasn’t an unreasonable hypothesis when it was proposed, but studies haven’t backed it up. It’s time for the Toxic Gas idea to stay buried and forgotten.


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5 Comments on “Die, rumor, die! Offgassing is not the cause of SIDS”

  1. “fresh tinfoil hat”: very funny! As a Happiest Baby on the Block educator, I field all manner of questions about safe sleeping. But I haven’t heard this one. Sigh.


  2. wzrd1 Says:

    Well, a wrapped mattress won’t “outgass” the odors from any nocturnal accident. A few of those onto an unprotected mattress and the odor won’t be the most pleasant. We used a mattress pad designed for the mattress. 😉

    As for “Big Mattress”, we’re fully in favor of a big mattress. I move around a lot in my sleep and with a big mattress, my wife and I don’t interfere with one another’s sleep. No help for the blanket though, so one good turn gets more of the blanket.
    Of course, under my sheet and blanket, outgassing occurs, but that gas, while nearly lethal to nasal receptors, is otherwise innocuous.
    But then, there’s a reason people my age start to be called “old farts”. :/

    On a more serious note, our youngest child began to experience sleep apnea at around 3 months. Our first hint, our normally quiet house cat suddenly being vocal and loud at that, pacing a few feet back and forth on the top few steps, acting quite agitated. I followed her to see what she was going on about, as the behavior was extremely unusual and she ran into baby’s room and hopped up into the crib.
    “Get off of the – xxxx!-blue baby!”
    Thankfully, with a bit of effort and just as I was considering giving an infant rescue breath (folks, no regular mouth to mouth, just your cheeks will do for an infant and compressions are done with a couple of fingertips for infants), she began breathing and roused within seconds.
    Our hospital clinic that were our pediatric care source provided thousands of dollars of monitoring equipment, which rarely went off – the cat alerted minutes before the equipment did.
    I have no clue as to how the cat was alerted, perhaps she was present for a previous episode that self-resolved, but frightened her.
    Still, three months is an odd age to start sleep apnea, thankfully, it resolved by age six months.
    Maybe it was me outgassing in the next room. 😉

    Serious again, doc, great job including the links to *real* SIDS prevention information!
    So many doctors are now working after work to save lives and prevent disability. You, with your efforts here.
    Our primary, volunteering to spend time after closing to handle some concerning issues that have cropped up recently. For my wife, recently discovered vertebral fractures, with older fractures discovered by her rheumatologist, ignored by our previous primary, along with a handful of other issues, including poor glycemic control. Me, issues that I suspect are secondary to a long (x 30 years) bulging L4-L5 disc, aggravated to neurological involvement when I caught my wife from falling after day surgery to repair a umbilical hernia (secondary to 34+ year old c-section scar failure at the umbilicus) and gallbladder removal.
    We greatly appreciate him subtracting from his family time to work with us and my impossible work schedule!
    Both of us figuring out how to game the insurance company’s game, well, that’ll be a challenge for another day.

    Oh, we have a lot more going on, but you’re not our physician and those issues would add nothing of worth here. We’ll suffice it to say, the technical term is “train wreck” for both of us, medically speaking. Our local specialists are doing quite well by our insurance company, since we’ve relocated here.


  3. Melody Clevenger Says:

    As a mother who lost her four month old to SIDS last year and who is expecting her second child in December, can you tell me what harm it does to wrap a mattress in SIDS prevention plastic? I have my Doctorate in Nursing Practice and have researched this topic thoroughly. Although I can not find concrete evidence to support wrapping mattresses, I also am unable to find any evidence that would support not covering and sealing crib mattresses as a precautionary. Have you found evidence to the contrary? Is there a reason you found it necessary to write a rebuttal against sealing crib mattresses? Again, I will ask you what harm have you found in this practice that you felt strongly enough to write this passage? We did everything by the book (back to sleep, nothing in the crib, nothing against her face, non-smoking home, healthy baby, no history of apnea, breast fed, no cats or pet dander in the home, temp regulation, baby monitors, etc) yet, we still lost her. She was even strong enough to roll over on her own (had been since birth) and push up on her hands and knees (as she was getting ready to crawl). She was found on her back, nothing against her face, and with a small normal amount of spit up on the sheet beside her (nothing in her lungs) in the morning already gone and in the same position she was in at 1130 pm. So you tell me….what should I have done differently? I can only come up with a small amount of changes to keep my sanity with our new little one coming next month. Those changes include sealing the mattress, inclining the mattress (from underneath), and an angel monitor. She will also sleep in a bassinet beside my bed until she is one. We moved Lili into her own room at 2 months because she was such a noisy sleeper and I woke to every sound. So again….what is the harm in sealing the mattress and why do you feel so strongly against it? I really have to know.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It seems a little anti-science to say “Die, rumor, die” about something that is not even a rumor but is in fact a HYPOTHESIS. You said yourself that studies haven’t backed this up. Studies have, in fact, been inconclusive. So if we have no conclusion one way or the other, how can you so vehemently shoot down this hypothesis?


  5. wzrd1 Says:

    Science requires empirical evidence, not jumping to a conclusion based upon correlation that ignores other cases where “outgassing” is impossible.
    Unless you think that modern mattresses for infants have time machines built into them that gasses children around the world in the past to death in their sleep, while they sleep on feather or rag stuffed mattresses and sleeping mats.


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