1. Choose Better Bedclothes —
The problem: Toxic chemcials that resist flames, water, moths, stains, soil, and wrinkles are sometimes added to textiles like bedclothes. Labels such as "permanent-press," "no-iron," "water repellent," and "flame retardant" may indicate fabric treatments that off-gas chemicals like formaldehyde and perfluorochemicals (PFCs). These toxins may be linked to: respiratory and skin irritation, cancer, and developmental damage.
The solution: Choose organic fabric sheets and covers without any chemical finishers. Most bedclothes will not be labeled with information about finishers, so call the manufacturer and ask, or choose bedclothes that advertise as "chemical-free." Also, avoid fabrics with a "new" smell that may indicate chemical treatments.
Eco-bonus: Organically grown cotton is grown without pesticides that can harm workers and the environment (though those particular chemicals won't reach you in conventional cotton products).
Visit our National Green Pages™ category: bedding/futons/mattresses
Check out our article: The Allergen-Free Bedroom
2. Mind Your Mattress—
The problem: Federal laws require mattresses to be fire resistant, so many manufacturers treat the mattress foam with flame-retardant chemcials. The most dangerous are polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which some manufacturers are phasing out voluntarily. Mattresses and pads made of petroleum-based polyester, nylon, and polyurethane foam (including "memory" foam) can off-gas VOCs. The water-repellants and stain-resistant finishes used on many mattresses, and on some plywood or particleboard boxsprings, may offgas formaldehyde. These toxins may be linked to: endocrine disruption, cancer, neurotoxicity.
The solution: Choose mattresses stuffed with natural, nontoxic, and organic materials, and untreated with flame-retardant PDBEs or other chemical finishes. (If this information is not on the tag, call the manufacturer.) Mattresses with a layer of flame-retardant wool may be more affordable than all-organic mattresses. If you can't replace your mattress, minimize off-gassing fumes by covering it with an impermeable encasement intended for allergy sufferers, by vacuuming frequently, by ventilating the room, and by using a HEPA air filter.
Updated April 2015, originally published in the Spring 2008 issue