Mother Earth Living

Discovering Toxic Materials in Your Bedroom

Debra Lynn Dadd shares what you need to know when looking for toxic materials in your bedroom, includes tips on safe materials for sheets, pillows, pillowcases and mattresses.
By Debra Lynn Dadd
November/December 2003
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Keep your bedroom healthy and serene.
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Learn what you need to know about toxic materials in your bedroom.

How to Find Toxic Materials in Your Bedroom

Change the sheets.

The Problem: Polyester-cotton bed linens and “no-iron” cotton bed linens are treated with a formaldehyde-based permanent-press finish to keep them wrinkle free. The formaldehyde resin becomes a permanent and irremovable part of the fiber, and it continues to release formaldehyde fumes for the life of the fabric. (Wash and wear diminishes formaldehyde levels, but residues remain as long as the fabric stays wrinkle free.) Formaldehyde exposure can cause headaches, skin rashes, respiratory problems, fatigue, and insomnia.

The Solution: Choose sheets made from cotton flannel (it doesn’t wrinkle), untreated 100-percent cotton, or knit cotton jersey. Pure linen sheets are a luxury, but they feel wonderful, especially after many washings.

Get rid of foam pillows.

The Problem: Pillows labeled “hypoallergenic” may relieve sneezing, but they’re stuffed with polyester and foam, which are made from crude oil. While these rate relatively low on the toxicity scale, they’re very soft thermoplastics that continuously emit minute plastic vapors as the fiber warms against your body.

The Solution: If you’re allergic to feathers, try sleeping on a soft organic wool pillow or a more firm cotton pillow. If you need neck support, choose a natural fiber pillow designed for that purpose.

Switch to natural fiber blankets.

The Problem: Most inexpensive blankets, comforters, and mattress pads are made from acrylic or polyester, both thermoplastics made from crude oil. Like polyester, acrylic isn’t high on the list of hazardous toxins, but it also continuously gives off plastic vapors.

The Solution: Blankets made from natural fibers such as cotton and wool provide more comfort and better air flow. In addition to the classic cotton thermal blankets, cotton is now used to make a soft, almost wool-like “cashmere” blanket. Also consider a wool-filled comforter, which wicks humidity away from the skin, is good at maintaining the optimal skin temperature of 91 degrees, and even calms the sleeper’s heart rate, according to studies at the Polytechnic Institute of Wales.

Treat yourself to a new mattress.

The Problem: Most mattresses are made from polyurethane foam plastic (even innerspring mattresses are wrapped with foam), sprayed with chemical fire retardants, and covered with polyester fabric. Long-term exposure to polyurethane foam can cause bronchitis, coughing, and skin and eye problems. Polyurethane foam also releases toluene diisocyanate, which can produce severe lung problems.

The Solution: If your mattress is several years old, most of the chemicals have probably outgassed. When it’s time for a new bed, buy a natural mattress or futon made of cotton, wool, or natural latex foam. (They cost about the same as a high-end synthetic mattress and box spring.) Cotton can compact and get hard over time and also tends to collect dust mites. Wool futons are easy to pick up and move outdoors for sun and air, which kills dust mites.

Clear the clutter.

The Problem: Bedrooms tend to double as dressing rooms and perhaps even office space; children often sleep, dress, play, and study in their bedrooms. A pile of books next to the bed or bookshelves in the room may give off toxic inks. Hobby supplies may include toxic adhesives or paints. Clothing fresh from the dry cleaners may give off dangerous perchloroethylene fumes.

The Solution: Make a space for your bed that is just for sleeping. If you have a large room, consider dividing it with a screen to make separate areas. Organize your closet so you can put things away behind closed doors. Remove any items that are emitting toxic fumes.

Furnish clearly and simply.

The Problem: Dressers, tables, and other bedroom furniture may look like wood but actually be made from particleboard. If so, they’re releasing formaldehyde—which can cause insomnia—into your bedroom. Upholstered furniture with stain-resistant coating can also release formaldehyde; most inexpensive pieces are made with the same polyurethane foam and polyester as synthetic mattresses.

The Solution: Limit furniture in your bedroom to what is needed and choose pieces made from solid wood. Buy unfinished solid wood furniture and finish it with nontoxic wood stain, sealer, or oil. Have furniture custom stuffed and covered with natural fiber upholstery.

Hit the floor.

The Problem: Synthetic wall-to-wall carpet is made from a complex blend of as many as 120 chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency determined that synthetic carpet is a major contributor to indoor air pollution after a 1988 incident at the agency’s own offices, in which employees reported symptoms associated with exposure to their new carpeting.

The Solution: Plain hardwood floors are the most healthful choice for the bedroom because they’re easy to clean and don’t harbor dust. You can add small, natural fiber area rugs, if you like.

Reframe your windows.

The Problem: Polyester fabric window coverings and vinyl window shades and blinds become even more of a problem when the sun shines through the window, warming the plastics and accelerating the outgassing process.

The Solution: Choose natural fiber curtains, drapes, or blinds. Cotton, linen, and silk curtains are now sold in most chain home décor shops. Choose wood or metal curtain rods. Wood blinds and shutters are also good options.

Shopping for the safe bedroom

Natural bedroom products abound in popular retail stores. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the shops you usually frequent, you can find it on the Internet.

For sources of healthy bedroom products, see Debra Lynn Dadd's Favorite Links.

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