Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, SIDS, Prevention, cot death, mattress wrapping

SIDS: A Preventable Tragedy?

SIDS: A Preventable Tragedy?

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, commonly referred to as crib death, remains one of the most common causes of infant death in the United States. While the recommendation that newborns be placed on their back to sleep has reduced the number of unexplained infant deaths over 3,000 babies under the age of 12 months are found to have died during sleep each year. Every day, on average, eight parents put their apparently normal and healthy infants to sleep and find them unresponsive only a few hours later.

The deaths are not limited to cribs. The risk of unexplained death during sleep may be greater if the infant is sleeping with a parent or older sibling. The unexpected loss leaves scars that never completely heal.

A plausible explanation for the phenomenon of crib death was advanced independently by New Zealand and British chemists in the 1980s. Tragically, their theory has been rejected by purported experts and an inexpensive and simple solution to the problem has gone largely unreported in the United States.

Dozens of articles have been written to discredit the proposed explanation and recommended solution. Since 1994, however, over 130,000 parents have chosen to protect their infants according to the protocol prescribed by Dr. Jim Sprott, a New Zealand chemist and forensic scientist. With the incidence of crib death in New Zealand running at 2.1 per 1000, 273 deaths would be expected in a group of this size. To date, however, not a single unexplained death has occurred among the protected babies.

The story begins in Italy over 100 years ago. During the early 1890s a mysterious epidemic took the lives of over one thousand people, predominantly infants who had been crawling or sleeping on the floor. Medical examiners were stumped. The bodies showed no sign of struggle, abuse, infection or birth defects. The only clue was the presence of arsenic, but it was inconceivable that such a large number of people, particularly young children, would have been murdered.

In 1893 an Italian chemist, Gosio, was called upon to investigate. Gosio chose to examine the homes in which the deaths had occurred. Most were affluent and well furnished. All had wallpaper or fabrics in a popular and expensive shade of green known as “Paris Green” a form of “Scheele’s Green”. Scheele, a Swedish chemist, had invented the pigment in 1770 using copper arsenite.

Gosio also observed that mildew was present in each of the homes. His research demonstrated that the molds causing the mildew had the ability to break down the copper arsenite into arsine, a highly poisonous gas. Arsine, being heavier than air, became concentrated near the floor where infants and young children succumbed to its effects.

An interesting postscript to the Scheele’s Green affair is that the wallpaper of Napoleon’s home in exile on St. Helena contained the arsenic based pigment. A lock of Napoleon’s hair was examined in the 1960s and found to contain small quantities of arsenic. While the cause of his death was a perforated ulcer from stomach cancer the presence of arsine gas in his home would account for a number of symptoms he experienced in the years prior to his death.

A half-century later another epidemic of infant deaths began, which has continued to the present day. As in the 1890s cases, the bodies showed no sign of struggle, abuse, infection or birth defects.

Numerous theories regarding the cause of the deaths have been suggested. Most have proposed a mechanism by which the infants could have died of suffocation. In 1968 the term Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was applied to these deaths. The cause of SIDS continues to elude physicians and governmental agencies.

In the late 1980s, however, two chemists, T. J. Sprott of New Zealand and B. A. Richardson of England independently noted that mildew was present in the sheepskins and mattresses upon which the victims of crib death had been lying. Richardson examined 200 mattresses and found mildew in 100% of them.

Crib mattresses had begun to be manufactured from inexpensive polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the early 1950s, when the incidence of crib death began to rise. Because PVC is highly flammable, flame retardant chemicals including arsenic, antimony and phosphorus were commonly added. All are subject to breakdown and conversion to gas by molds. Arsine, stibine, and phosphine, the gaseous forms of arsenic, antimony and phosphorus, are highly toxic. Small amounts can disrupt the function of the nervous system resulting in respiratory paralysis – an inability to breathe.

Dr. Richardson was unable to demonstrate the presence of arsine in the mildewed mattresses, but he was able to find stibine. Other researchers have since demonstrated the presence of arsine and phosphine in mildewed mattresses.

An examination of the livers of infants dying unexpectedly was carried out in England. High antimony levels were found. High levels of antimony were also found in their surviving siblings. Such levels were not present in infants dying from identifiable causes.

SIDS has a specific sociologic risk profile. Infants of single mothers, African-American mothers & infants who spend a significant amount of time in day care are three times as likely to die unexpectedly than infants in other social settings.

Richardson’s theory is consistent with this pattern. The risk of SIDS rises as mattresses age. An infant sleeping on a used crib mattress is two to three times more likely to die than an infant sleeping on a new mattress, and the risk rises each time the mattress is reused. Poor single mothers, African-American mothers & day-care centers are more likely to reuse mattresses than are more affluent families.

Placing newborn babies on their backs moves their nose and mouth 180 degrees away from the mattress. This could explain the 38% decrease in crib deaths since parents have been advised to do so. Infants continue to die, however, and it is important to understand that nearly all babies are able to roll onto their stomachs by five months of age.

SIDS is not limited to cribs, however. The risk may actually be greater when the infant shares a bed with a parent or sibling, since the body heat and moisture of older children and adults is capable of supporting the growth of mildew in mattresses.

Rather than suggest to a distraught parent that the baby suffocated because the adult rolled over on the baby during sleep, nursing mothers or other parents who wish to allow their newborn to lie in their bed should be instructed to wrap their mattress with a protective cover of heavy duty, non-porous polyethylene.

The toxic gas theory of SIDS provides a logical explanation for what is known about the characteristics of crib death. The solution of wrapping mattresses to prevent gases from rising has been 100% successful to date. The question, “Why have governmental and private agencies steadfastly refused to admit that the theory has merit and failed to notify the public of a simple and inexpensive method to prevent sudden infant death?” must therefore be asked.

Several answers have been suggested. The first is that Richardson’s findings were reported in a British newspaper before they had been published in a scientific journal. This was a departure from accepted scientific protocol, and it resulted in a debate about Richardson’s credibility rather than the theory itself.

A second answer is that organizations and institutions continue to receive large research grants to study SIDS. Recognition of the fact that the cause of and means to prevent SIDS has been found would mean an end to these monies.

A third, and perhaps the most significant answer, is that the potential product liability associated with the use of PVC in mattresses along with governmental mandates that the flame retardant chemicals be added is simply too great. As long as the official position is that the toxic gas theory is without merit, manufacturers and governmental agencies can successful defend against allegations that their products and recommendations have contributed to infant deaths.

Fortunately, concerned parents and grandparents need not wait for official sanction to protect their newborns. Various sizes of pre-fitted crib wraps are available from Crib Life 2000 (; 800.951.9255). A protocol for wrapping mattresses with polyethylene is posted at Wrap crib mattresses immediately and, if the infant will be sharing a mattress with parents or siblings wrap those mattresses as well. Your baby’s life may depend upon it.

Mattress Wrapping Protocol of Dr. Jim Sprott

1. Mattresses should be wrapped in thick, natural- color (not black) polyethylene sheeting. Polyethylene suitable for this purpose is available from most garden centers. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) must not be used for wrapping mattresses.

2. Place the polythene over the top of the mattress and down the ends and sides, and then secure it firmly beneath the mattress with strong adhesive tape.

3. The polythene or rubber on the underside of the mattress should not be airtight. It must be airtight on the top and sides of the mattress.

4. The best cover sheet for use on a wrapped mattress is fleecy cotton. Do not place a mattress protector on top of the polythene or rubber.

5. Wrap every mattress on which a baby is put down to sleep, including adults' mattresses, mattresses of other children and playpen mattresses

6. Proprietary mattress covers should not be used unless they are accompanied by a certificate of analysis showing that they contain no detectable phosphorus, arsenic or antimony (lower limit of detection 0.001% = 10mg/kg = 10ppm).