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Sleep surfaces for the chemically sensitive

Posted Feb 17 2013 12:00am

What can you sleep on after you’ve exhausted conventional beds, air mattresses, and self-inflating camping pads?  This is the question I had to answer  after a difficult January plagued by insomnia.and the triggering of symptoms.


We moved from the cold house in the Santa Rosa mountains down into the Coachella Valley to live in our newly purchased, used LivinLite VRV toyhauler at the RV park where I did well last year in my tent. After much detective work, I discovered that I was reacting to theThermarest camping mats I'd relied on since departing on this journey in September 2011.  I tested by the process of elimination. 

At first I thought the mats had gotten contaminated, but after getting a similar reaction to brand new Thermarest mats (a cushier model), I came to the conclusion that I was reacting to the chemicals used to make the foam. Back in Ohio I reacted to my natural rubber latex mattress (purchased because it was hypoallergenic) but did not test allergic to latex. The reasonable conclusion was a reaction to the residue of chemicals used to make foam out of natural rubber as well as those used to make other kinds of foam, like memory foam, which is in the Thermarest self-inflating mattresses.  

It was definitely a bummer to have nothing soft to sleep on.  My first escape was into the back seat of my car.  A little tight, but after two sleepless weeks, Zzzzzz’s were sweet. Who cares about stretching out legs when the brain goes into a restful state? I had to catch up on sleep and wipe out the grumps before the urge to stretch my legs out won over.

What worked inside the trailer was tying together the cushions from the outdoor chairs. These foam cushions had three and a half months outdoors 24/7 to outgas.  They don't make a comfortable bed, alas.

One day the owner of   nontoxic.com, Daliya Robson, came to the pools. After hearing that carbon blankets helped a friend of mine travel, I tried wrapping the Thermarest in carbon sheets from her store, covering every surface, and then putting a few layers of sheets on top.  The carbon is supposed to absorb toxins via contact with the mat surface.  They supposedly work the same way, but more effectively, than activated charcoal works in water filters and taken internally, where it is used in poison centers..

I went to the website of the company that makes the carbon sheets and blankets.  The manufacturer is Calgon Carbon.  Carbon cloths are listed under specialty products.  One type has this description:
Due to its microporous structure, Zorflex® activated carbon cloth has an extremely large surface area. To put its capabilities into perspective, just 1g of Zorflex® activated carbon cloth has the surface area of over half the size of a football field. This, combined with the strong electrostatic forces within the cloth, enables the cloth to be highly efficient at adsorbing both liquids and gases.
Following the links, I learned that  Activated Carbon Cloth (ACC) was originally developed by the British Ministry of Defence for use in chemical warfare suits. Information on the properties of the cloth can be found here: http://www.chemvironcarbon.com/en/activated-carbon-cloth/properties-of-zorflex , and in these two fact sheets: http://www.calgoncarbon.com/media/images/site_library/55_Zorflex_Woven.pdf
Zorflex is used medically for wound healing where, when impregnated with silver, it functions effectively as a barrier against infections, even micron-sized viruses, and in face masks.

From this research, it seems reasonable to conclude that one could make a fabulous civildevastation suit. Even a long cape with a scarf to cover the mouth and nose when necessary would be an amazing way to go out in the world.

Daliya has some suggestions on her website for the chemically sensitive:

If you react to toxic cars, old or new carpets, wardrobes, basement mold odors, mattress fumes or more, then consider the use of carbon blankets to absorb the fumes and odors. The activated carbon felt can be reactivated by placing in very hot sun for a few hours in the summer and 5 hours in winter sun. if they tear the separate parts will be effective even in smaller pieces.  Encase to avoid dust particles if you are severely asthmatic let someone else encase the carbon before use. Only 2 people out of thousands have had to do this. Activated Carbon Felt is, inert and insoluble and does not present any environmental hazards and is an improvement to activated carbon conventional granular or powdered activated carbon. 
Environmentally sensitive can use this felt material for protection from toxic fumes, mold odor or tobacco fume situations.  The felt blanket will absorb fumes from the carpet and the air and protect you from fumes and chemicals while it is on or near the offending item. We recommend encasing the blanket with a duvet cover, sew into a flat shee,t make shawls or scarves with it or even masks. 

I’ve been using carbon felt face masks that I purchased through ICanBreathe.com.  These nasks have made it possible for me to spend time in many more places. I’m waiting for the fashion to catch on. When I wear it, I get two questions:  Are you sick? What’s in the air that you aren’t telling us about?

Here’s a picture of me in my Honeycomb mask

 After my success with the Honeycomb, I ordered one of their black lace masks

and wore it Friday to the Palm Springs Art Fair where I got comments like Nice mask, Where can I get one of them?, I need one of those things too. (from David) It looks like you're wearing your underwear on your face!  (Stranger) You're a lucky guy.


I can’t say I gave the carbon sheet a fair trial.  I had my bed prepared with the wrapped sleeping pad, but before bedtime, decided I just wanted to sleep next to it the first night.  Within about 10 minutes, I kept hearing in my head take it outside, take it outside, and I wanted to follow my inner guidance.  Listening to the inner voice has been a crucial part of my recovery.

In my search for non-toxic bedding products, here’s what else I found.
Organic cotton is safe, but anything sold for sleeping has to be treated with flame retardants unless you have a doctor’s prescription. I’m not sure about the rules for cotton blankets.  Since cotton holds moisture, I’ve been warned that it attracts mold.  Also, cotton batting used in futons gets compressed and doesn’t fold well. It’s great for clothing and things which are easily washed and dried.

Shepherd’s Dream has lots of environmentally non-toxic wool products, ranging from futons to mattress toppers to sheets of wool felt.  They sent me their sensitivity kit, which arrived in the mail today. Everything smelled fine.  I set up the test according to their guidelines - put samples in clean glass jars out in the sun and then sniff. The wool bedding smells like lamb fat cooking. I'm not sure I can sleep with this stuff -- maybe under a carbon blanket, since I'm not allergic to lanolin. The other company with lower prices who sells wool futons and mattress toppers had a smell that made me gag, so they are out.

However, the page on wool felts at Shepherd's Dream gave me to the idea to make a bed out of wool blanket. Having taught yoga for a decade, I'm familiar with the wool and wool blend blankets available at a reasonable cost.  They are nice resilience and provide the kind of firm support that I prefer.

A few days ago we went to Harbor Freight to check out their $10 wool blend blankets, made in China, and got a nice dose of gasoline-smelling solvents. Ugh. I did some research and learned that APEO is used in detergents, cleaning agents, and textile production. These chemicals, which are toxic to the environment, are endocrine disrupters to wildlife. In humans, they mess with estrogen metabolism, which leads to cancer and other unhappy conditions.  There is other nasty stuff in dyes.

I checked in with Carolyn Gorman, author of Less Toxic Alternatives and several other books who wrote me that her research on fabrics revealed that permanent press requires many washes and time--say 2-3 years or maybe 24-36 washes--to come out of the fabrics. Textile dyes azo and aniline, the two most toxic, would be similar. However, she wrote that skin doesn’t absorb much from fabric.  Most absorption is through inhalation and ingestion (breathing and eating.)

Because my 2011 Metametrix toxicity panel showed that I already have very high levels of a derivative of APEO, I decided to make a conservative choice. I found, on sale, organic cotton yoga mats and chem free cotton yoga blankets at yogaaccessories.com, and with an extra 15% off online coupon, picked up two of each to make a starter bed. The sale combined with my limited tolerance of the hard floor got me to make a decision before completing my research.  The organic cotton batting sample I got from The Futon Shop in San Francisco smelled like cottonseed oil.  I'm hoping the stuff in the yoga futon mats is a better purified.  At least they are small enough to air out on the clothesline. After I try these out I may add a wool layer on the top, or bottom, or maybe two layers.  I’m waiting for that inner voice to guide me.

I wrote to Polartec because I have no problem wearing that material, it’s fairly inexpensive lightweight, and easy to wash.  A little research reveals that the stuff is just plastic. Yes, plain old plastic, made to be warm because of the way it is prepared to hold air. Some of it is made in the US (in Boston.)  Some is made from recycled plastic, and can then be recycled again, reducing landfill.  I totally support this.   I was tempted to try some for my blanket stack, but the ones sold at Bed, Bath and Beyond had a chemical smell that I would not want to sleep with.  I’m hoping  to learn what chemical residues are in Polartec fabric and then how long these residues last, whether they are water soluble, and how much laundering is required to remove them. Polartec has two new types--fiber with tiny carbon particles from coconut inside the fibers and fiber impregnated with silver, both of which absorb odors and protect from environmental toxins. Plastic, like cotton, does not have natural mold resistance, which is not a big problem with something easily washable that will stay in safe spaces.

Resources for environmentally and MCS-safe non-toxic bedding:
http://planetthrive.com/tag/restful-sleep/
http://www.thefutonshop.com /Organic-Wool-Mattress-Topper-Soft-3-inch/p/731/5694  (not on Planet Thrive list)









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