Feature

Is your bedroom killing you softly?

Green Lifestyle

Your well-deserved shut-eye could be doing you more harm than good if you're unknowingly sleeping in a toxic room. Get smart with our essential guide to detoxing your bedroom.

green-bedroom

Probably the worst and least expected offender when it comes to toxins in the bedroom is your mattress.

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The bedroom is where we spend most of our time – in fact, about a third of our lifetime. It’s the place where we start and end each day, where we relax and recuperate. However, a good night’s sleep doesn’t seem so serene when you consider that the bedroom can harbour up to 100 times more pollutants than there are outdoors, mostly due to ‘off-gassing’ from bedding, pillows, mattresses, flooring and bed frames. Off-gassing is the slow process of noxious gases, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), entering the air from toxic materials, making it easy for us to breathe them in. VOCs such as formaldehyde and benzene are known carcinogens, while tolulene and xylene can cause brain damage. Fortunately, there are ways to keep your bedroom free of toxins and allergens.

Bedding:

Bed linen made from synthetic materials such as polyester are much less hygienic than all-natural linen because synthetics trap moisture and allow microbes and dust mites to flourish, says Jenny Ower from ecoLinen Organic.

“The more natural fibres you are surrounded with, the more restful your sleep,” Ower says. “Breathability is better; moisture is wicked away from our skin.” But she warns of non-organic bedding, especially cotton because of the heavy use of pesticides when growing it, which stay as residues, as well as cotton smoothing agents which can include formaldehyde and other toxins.

“What we don’t know is the subtle and cumulative effect of daily doses of non-organic cotton toxins on our health,” she says. Choose organic cotton or linen sheets, pillowcases and bed covers. When it comes to pillows and quilts, try eucalyptus, buckwheat, tea tree or corn-fibre.

More than 70 per cent of Australians admit that their pillow is the main thing that impacts on their sleep quality, so design is important as well. There are some curved cushions on the market that can help with neck pain caused by a bad pillow, but beware of synthetic materials, as allergy-causing dust mites and bacteria are more likely to thrive in man-made rather than natural bedding materials. There’s an increasingly popular fibre called kapok that makes a great, all-natural pillow, that is light, water-resistant (so it naturally repels mites and bacteria) and is usually grown 100 per cent organically. Just be sure to choose fairtrade varieties, such as from www.kapok.com.au and www.kapokpillows.com.au.

Mattress:

Most mattresses sold on the Australian market are made from petroleum-based polyurethane, and are treated with potentially lethal flame retardants. The good news is that wool naturally repels fire, and if you opt for an organic wool futon, such as those from Blessed Earth, you’ll even be avoiding pesticides. There are also some non-toxic and anti-microbial latex mattresses and pillows, such as those from Zentai and Natural Bedding.

Even a 10-year-old toxic mattress can still off-gas. If you can’t afford a new mattress, cover your current one with a non-toxic mattress protector or comforter of 2.5 cm thickness to keep you from breathing in VOCs. Be sure to recycle any old mattresses, check out what to do with them in your area at www.recyclenearyou.com.au.

Paint:

Interior decorators will tell you that the first step to refreshing a room is a new layer of paint. But slopping a standard paint or varnish (particularly oil-based) onto walls and trims dramatically increases VOCs in the room. Luckily, low- or zero-VOC, water-based paints are available and look great. For more info and products, visit www.greenpainters.org.au.

Play it baby-safe: “One of the first things people do before or after they’ve had a baby, is paint the baby’s room,” says Daniel Wurm, training manager for GreenPainters. “If the baby is in a room with toxic paint, it is breathing in a chemical cocktail from the first day they’re brought home. We’ve now got evidence that babies exposed to paint fumes have a higher chance of developing allergies.” Pregnant women and young children in particular should be kept away from any paint smells or fumes, because their body will absorb those chemicals.

Removing old paint: “Getting rid of old paint is a waste of time,” says Wurm. “Removing old toxic paint will not help eliminate nasty gases and is unnecessary because the VOCs emitted by paint are highest during the first few months. In fact, old paint in houses built before 1971 should not be removed or disturbed because it contains lead which is highly toxic to children and animals… it might be less risk just to paint over the old paint using special primers.” See the website www.painters.edu.au for more information.

Furniture & floors:

That ‘new’ smell of recently bought furniture, carpet, cupboards and particleboard is actually the toxic off-gassing of VOCs, but dangerous vapours won’t always have an odour. You can prevent VOC build-up by choosing natural carpeting and furniture that is made without the nasty synthetic chemicals found in pressed wood, carpet glue or plastic fibres. Of approximately 400 VOCs that can be found in the home, more than 200 can be found in carpeting. Good flooring materials include timber, cork, bamboo, and linoleum, while for furniture, most upcycled, reclaimed or secondhand timber items are generally much better than new, and some companies such as Natural Bedding and Blessed Earth make great non-toxic bed frames.

Electrical equipment:

Night lights trick our brain into thinking it’s daytime and disrupt our sleeping patterns – especially blue light, like that from those little standby power buttons (that also guzzle up energy). Wake yourself up from a tranquil slumber with a battery-powered alarm (opt for rechargeable batteries), or go vintage with a wind-up alarm clock. There are also growing concerns about exposure to radiation from mobile phones and electrical wiring, so position your bed away from main house cables and leave the mobile in the lounge room.

Well-kept:

Sometimes our cleaning regimes can focus on the kitchen, bathroom and living areas, while the bedroom rarely gets more than a quick dusting and sheet change. As through the rest of the house, stick with natural cleaners, such as hot water, bicarb and vinegar, for cleaning everything including mirrors, floors, carpets and rugs. When changing sheets, leave them off for the day to air your mattress. Use eco-friendly washing detergents as they’re also kinder to your skin. On wooden furniture and floors, use natural oil- or beeswax-based polishes.

Clear air:

Clean air in your bedroom is an essential - as indoor air is often more polluted than outside air, open up the windows regularly to ensure good airflow. While you may choose to buy an air purifier, indoor plants are also very effective at removing VOCs from the air, without the expensive running costs. Include a few in your bedroom that are suitable for the lighting conditions (see our poster this issue for a few ideas). Make sure that your plant is re-potted every year or so, as it’s actually the microbes in the soil of the pot that do most of the work in removing toxins.

Allergen-free:

For a clean haven that doesn’t get up your nose, open up the bedroom curtains or blinds every day to allow direct sunlight to spread across your room – this will kill dust mites and fungus spores. Regular vacuuming of carpets and any fabric upholstery will reduce dust build-up, as will cleaning out your ventilation systems once a month or so. Burning a non-toxic candle in the room can help to remove spores and dust, but make sure it is not made with parrafin or has a lead wick and, of course, remember to blow it out before falling asleep.