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Better Sleeping Through Chemistry?

Chemicals in beakers

Synthetic chemicals are everywhere; they permeate our lives. There are chemicals for just about anything you want to do:

  • Fertilize grass or kill it
  • Glue things together or remove glue
  • Soften fabric or stiffen it
  • Start fires or put them out
  • Lubricate machines or de-grease them

Some people call it “better living through chemistry,” and in some instances that’s true, but most also sense that there are undesirable side-effects that go along with modern chemical use. There has been very little scientific testing not only on individual industrial chemicals, but also on how the interaction of chemicals affects us or our environments. No one yet fully understands how the moisturizer you use on your skin interacts with the fabric softener in your laundry or the lubrication you use on your bike.

Although we cannot live totally free from synthetic chemicals these days, we can reduce our exposures to the most toxic ones.

One revealing comparison is to consider the relative chemical risks of working at a desk versus sleeping on your bed.

Office Toxins

In the typical office you have a desk, phone, computer, monitor, and office supplies. These are generally environmentally-unfriendly items. Desks are usually made with stains, glues, and synthetic finishes. Computers and phones are made with plastics and electronic components–normally containing some lead and cadmium. Pens and markers are manufactured with pigments, dyes, and plastics.

Bedroom Toxins

In a bedroom, wooden furniture is usually made of the same materials as desks. Veneers, laminates, and glues are common. Most mattresses, box springs or foundations contain synthetic foams and adhesives. Borates and boric acid are sometimes used as fabric treatments against dust mites. Conventional mattresses can also contain formaldehyde (classified a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program). Most also contain brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, in order for these products to pass federally-mandated fire tests.

In 2010, a group of 122 scientists from 22 countries recommended banning these flame retardant chemicals worldwide.

Although both your bedroom and your office contain some synthetic chemicals, there are two key differences:

  1. In the bedroom you are in direct contact with your mattress and pillow for a third of your life. Because of this intimate proximity, the quality of the air you breathe while sleeping may be more significant to your health. Airborne toxins emitted by an office computer or monitor may be mitigated by distance–normally they are positioned about two feet away.
  2. Asleep, you’re likely not dreaming about what is in your mattress. It’s an object most people seldom contemplate. But if the chemicals commonly used in conventional mattresses were sitting in beakers on your desk, you might be inclined to move them some distance away.

A partial solution for both environments is to purchase furniture made with nontoxic finishes whenever you can. As for the bed you snuggle in for so many years, choosing an organic mattress and an organic pillow may be the health-savviest choice you can make.

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