For months, New York state lawmakers have been considering legislation that would regulate the use of fire-retardant chemicals in consumer products like children’s mattresses. 

Earlier this year, a state senate committee invited University Heights resident Barry Cik, a board certified environmental engineer, to testify on the subject before the legislative body.

“I was invited as an expert in the field,” said Cik, who has also addressed the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission on such matters. 

On Monday, Dec. 17, Cik will take his expertise to Capitol Hill, where a recent American Sustainable Business Council poll – which showed that 91 percent of small business owners believe that the chemical industry should be responsible for safe chemicals in the marketplace and that 75 percent support stricter regulations on toxic chemicals – has renewed interest in toxic chemical reform.

“It’s apparently becoming an issue for next year. What they want to do is update or redo the entire Toxic Substances Control Act. ... They want to finally put teeth into TSCA. How far they’ll get into it, I don’t know,” said Cik, explaining that he’ll be meeting with staffers in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. “They need to understand what’s going on. They’re not experts, they’re political-minded people.”

The trip will mark Cik’s second congressional visit to discuss legislative reform.

“I believe in it; I’m an advocate for it,” said Cik, referring to toxic chemical reform. “We have to go above and beyond and do a better job when it comes to the chemicals we put into our products – especially for children.”

Demand leads to business

While Cik has “been chasing chemicals for a living for about 30 or 40 years,” the issue hit closer to home about 10 years ago when he went shopping for a crib mattress and other items for his first grandchild.

“The issues that I found in the stores with the crib mattresses were that they were made with plasticizers, fire-retardant chemicals, pesticides and common allergens ... which I didn’t want my grandchild to sleep on,” said Cik, 61, a member of Green Road Synagogue in Beachwood. “I spoke with a salesperson who gave me a famous line: ‘Look, if it wasn’t safe, the government wouldn’t allow it on the shelf.’ Of course, that’s pure nonsense. The government permits it; there’s no law against it to begin with.

“So I walked out of there and I told my wife there’s no way I’m buying this,” he said. “I told her a little joke: ‘You know what? My grandfather slept on straw ... and our grandchild would be safer sleeping on a pile of straw than what’s on the market.’”

An internet search led Cik to organic mattresses that didn’t use the materials undesirable to him, but he said they weren’t suitable for babies because they weren’t waterproof, leaving them susceptible to mold and fungus – and most used natural latex, a strong allergen.

From that experience, Cik founded Naturepedic, which manufactures organic mattresses using food-grade waterproofing instead of plasticizers; low-flammable materials – mostly organic cotton – instead of highly flammable materials that in turn require a chemical flame retardant; and not using pesticides or common allergens like latex or wool.

Cik’s sons, Jeffrey and Jason, both Ivy League graduates, soon joined him in the endeavor.

“Both understood where I was going, and both were interested in joining me and changing the entire baby mattress industry – and we did that,” Cik said. “We started with a typical organic mattress design that was already on the market and we improved it.”

Naturepedic started as an Internet-based business that relied on an outside mattress manufacturer, but after a few years of growth, Cik and his sons bought their own equipment and moved into a 10,000-square-foot factory in Warrensville Heights.

Demand continued to increase, and two years ago, Naturepedic moved to its current facility, a 50,000-square-foot factory in Bainbridge Township, where it employs about 50 people. 

The company produces about 50,000 mattresses per year, some of them used by about 150 hospitals across the country, including Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, Fairview Hospital in Fairview Park and in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, Cik said.

Naturepedic products – which include baby and children’s mattresses as well as adult luxury mattresses and related bedding products – are available online, in about 400 retail outlets nationwide, including Berg’s Baby & Teen Furniture in Willoughby Hills, and in Naturepedic’s onsite showroom.

For its work, Naturepedic has been recognized and certified by several key agencies.

Most notably, the Global Organic Textile Standard certified Naturepedic organic, making Cik’s company one of the few mattress manufacturers in the world to receive that designation, he said.

Also, Naturepedic mattresses are certified to meet all three GREENGUARD standards — “Indoor Air Quality,” “Children & Schools” and “Select” — and are recommended by Healthy Child Healthy World, a national children’s advocacy coalition. Such third-party certifications are important in a market over-saturated with industry certifications, Cik said.

“If you’re a kosher consumer, you wouldn’t buy a product without an independent, third-party certification to tell you it’s kosher,” he said, adding “there are very few mattresses on the market that are truly certified.”

Issue bigger than just mattresses

Though Cik has made a business out of offering consumers organic alternatives, reforming the system that allows such chemicals to be added to products in the first place is still important to him.

Modern-day issues surrounding toxic chemicals date back to the 19th century, said Cik, who said that as far back as 1870, when industries formed along the Cuyahoga River, Lake Erie and other waterways across the country, it was common practice to dump toxic waste into bodies of water.

This practice went largely unchecked for decades – until repercussions were too evident to ignore, Cik said.

“By 1970, Lake Erie was dying. As a country, the public was realizing we couldn’t continue to dump toxic waste and materials into our waterways and into the air and ground and so on. There was a huge outcry,” he said.

Congress took note and sought to take action, and the chemical industry weighed in on the matter, Cik said. What resulted was political compromise, which led to two key pieces of legislation: the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the accompanying Toxic Substances Control Act.

“RCRA created a regulatory framework for the use and disposal of hazardous chemicals and substances; TSCA created a framework for the creation of hazardous chemicals,” Cik said. “The political compromise that was done in the ’70s was that the regulation of the waste disposal would be very severe, but the use of the chemical going into the consumer product would not be severe.”

Cik provided an example to explain the two laws.

“Let’s say at the beginning of the manufacturing run, you’re beginning with 100 pounds of a chemical to create your product. At the end of the run, let’s say 5 pounds are left, and those 5 pounds are dirty and yucky and gummy and you can’t use it anymore – it has no value. That 5 pounds has to go to a hazardous waste landfill – that’s the law,” he said. “But the other 95 pounds that went into the product that ends up in a baby mattress or shower curtain – that’s totally legal.”

This is due in large part, Cik said, to the fact that the approximately 75,000 chemicals in use as of 1979 – the year the 1976 law went into effect – were grandfathered in as exempt from regulation.

While TSCA gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulatory oversight over newly introduced chemicals, Cik argues that the agency “essentially has no authority except in extreme circumstances.

“As opposed to RCRA, TSCA was created with virtually no teeth whatsoever,” he said. “Between 1979 and today, there were six that the EPA tried to regulate, and they couldn’t even do that. One of those six was asbestos. Everybody thinks that asbestos is illegal, but guess what, asbestos is not illegal. I don’t think they’re making much anymore because of all the lawsuits, but it’s still legal. That’s how weak TSCA is.

“It’s so weak that in most cases, you fill out a form, you don’t have to say too much, and the EPA routinely approves it,” Cik said. “For all intents and purposes, it’s still open season.”

Push for reform gains steam

While Cik works to change that, he isn’t the only one who desires reform.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in which it stated it “recommends that chemical-management policy in the United States be revised to protect children and pregnant women and to better protect other populations.”

Regarding TSCA, the AAP said “it is widely recognized to have been ineffective in protecting children, pregnant women and the general population from hazardous chemicals in the marketplace.”

David Levine, founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, which conducted the recent poll, said that TSCA reform through the “Safe Chemicals Act,” legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is “extremely important” to businesses.

“In order to get the real shift toward an economic recovery, you really need some policies in place to incentivize good practices,” he said, adding that many of ASBC’s members “believe we can actually create a very strong profit as you – and because you – create environmental and social benefits.”

Naturepedic sets “a stellar example,” said Levine, adding it’s important for business leaders like Cik to make the case for reform by showing that moving to safer chemicals and sustainable materials can lead to successful business.

“Barry is part of a growing number of leaders that are joining forces to bring this process to state legislatures, the White House and Congress,” Levine said.

As Cik returns to Capitol Hill, he does so to continue pushing for the changes he feels have been needed for decades.

“I understood the issue of toxic chemicals in the late ’70s when I was in college. The joke in the engineering school was that ‘the solution to pollution was dilution,’ but I understood how serious of an issue this was,” said Cik, who graduated from The Ohio State University in Columbus. “You can’t simply dilute and pretend it’s going away. That’s like pouring all your chemicals into Lake Erie. The day would come when Lake Erie couldn’t handle it anymore, and that day came.

“It’s the same with people,” Cik said. “You can’t dump chemicals into the bodies of people, particularly babies, and not expect that ultimately there won’t be a harmful effect.”