The Harmful Effects of Polyurethane Fumes Exposure: Possible Link to Cancer

Updated on September 2, 2021

As a porous, synthetic material commonly used in furniture, mattresses, thermal insulation, and car seats manufacturing, polyurethane foam is also present in sleep apnea devices to muffle sound and vibration. Over 18 million people in the United States struggle with sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing recurrently stops during sleep. However, up to 80% of Americans with sleep apnea are undiagnosed, which is alarming. The condition can lead to serious health complications over time, such as heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and severe daytime fatigue.

One of the most popular sleep apnea treatments involves using a CPAP machine that delivers continuous positive air pressure to the airway through a hose and mask to keep it open while the person is sleeping. Recently, the Dutch company Philips, the largest manufacturer of sleep apnea devices, has issued a recall on 4 million machines and ventilators found to be defective. The reason why Philips took the devices off the market was the polyurethane foam, as it was discovered that exposure to the chemicals it releases when it degrades might cause numerous health problems, including cancer.

What Are the Health Consequences of Inhaling Polyurethane Fumes?

If polyurethane foam deteriorates, which is bound to happen if you have been using your sleep apnea device for a long time, it will start emanating toxic fumes that are the by-products of chemical reactions. As a consequence, you will unavoidably breathe in these fumes while you are sleeping. These dangerous chemicals refer to benzene, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, and volatile organic compounds. Most of these are linked to cancer, having the ability to affect various parts of the body – from leukemia to brain, nasal, lung, or breast cancer, just to name a few.

The National Association of Fire Marshals often describes polyurethane foam as “solid gasoline,” which only points out how harmful it is. Like gasoline, polyurethane foam contains dozens of toxic chemicals, including hydrocarbons, which can significantly endanger your health if you are using a recalled sleep apnea machine or ventilator. By constantly inhaling these fumes, your risk of coming to struggle with a serious disease increases significantly. 

If you find out that your CPAP sleep apnea device has been recalled, it is crucial to first talk to your healthcare provider before you decide to stop using it. Only they have the expertise to assess the situation and offer you valuable advice on whether you should continue your therapy. In some cases, the benefits of using a defective sleep apnea machine or ventilator outweigh the risks, so you may not have to replace it or switch to another sleep apnea treatment.

The Immediate Effects of Polyurethane Fumes Exposure

It is important to know that exposure to the harmful fumes released by deteriorated polyurethane foam in a defective sleep apnea device often causes immediate symptoms. If you experience some of these symptoms, it is recommended to visit your doctor, who will be able to tell you whether your sleep apnea machine or ventilator is dangerous. These are the short-term effects of exposure to polyurethane fumes: 

  • chest pressure
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • sinus congestion
  • eye and nose irritation
  • upper respiratory infections 

While some of these symptoms are normal if you have just begun therapy with a sleep apnea device, as your body is adjusting to the machine or ventilator, they may also be a sign that your Philips device is faulty. For this reason, regardless of how insignificant you think your symptoms are, it is best to consult with your doctor. 

About the Author

Miguel Leyva is a case manager at Atraxia Law. He works every day with people whose health was affected by defective products or exposure to toxic substances. He assesses their cases to determine whether they can file a claim and exhibits a lot of understanding, compassion, and empathy toward his clients, as most are elderly and in a lot of pain.

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