My new mattress, chock full of organic cotton, arrived a few months back; it’s been aired and is now being used as a vessel for my dreaming.
Airing it was a nightmare: for not only has it been polluted by winter woodsmoke outside but there has also been the damp night air to contend with. Cotton absorbs moisture; therefore, I’ve had to air it in a room I’ve set up as a ‘safe’ room. This room has foil on the floor; the windows are sealed up with tape, so that no outside air/woodsmoke particles can come in. And there is an air filter running on full speed 24/7. (The air filter (or air purifier if you’re reading this overseas) is an Inova Air E20, which is equal, if not better than the Austin Air Healthmate Plus. The difference being, the Austin is a US brand and the purifier (and change of filter (HEPA)) has to come from the US, while the Inova Air is made here in Oz; therefore, it’s cheaper and more sustainable for us Aussies to buy the Inova Air. Having said that, I already owned three of the Austins when the Inova was first released, and it would be fair to say, they both clean the air just as good. You can read more about the choice of filters/purifiers available for people sensitive to chemicals here.)
As blogged about in another post—the one where I discovered my mattress was mould affected—I buy my pillows, quilts and mattresses from Organature: a business run by Peter Byl, a chemically sensitive man, whose family manufactures mattresses for people who need or want a mattress free of chemicals. (Byl used to run a traditional mattress making company, here in Melbourne, but after a stint in hospital in a special ward with controlled air flow, and under the care of a doctor who specialised in chemical sensitivities, he found out, he’d been sensitised to the chemicals he had been working with: formaldehyde and phenol, both used in the manufacturing of textiles, and used in traditional mattresses. Byl is an excellent example of someone who has overcome ginormous hurdles and has used his illness to give back to others. I still can’t recommend his mattresses highly enough. It made such a difference to my health when I first bought one years ago, that I am excited about giving more of the gift of good health and vitality to myself this time!)
When I was first diagnosed as sensitive to chemicals, I underwent testing with Dr Colin Little, Allergy Specialist and Immunologist. (He is one of the most renowned, respected and knowledgeable doctors in the field of chemical sensitivities in Australia.) (I must also say though, some of these tests were bloody awful!) I was tested for polyurethane, moulds (Cladosporium, which is a mould found outdoors; and Aspergillus, which is often found indoors) and sadly, for this gardener, in compost heaps and leaf mulch)), formaldehyde, burnt gas, polyester, petro-chemicals, perfume, terpenes, rubber, diesel, and car exhaust—all came back positive.
When it comes to furniture, polyurethane is ubiquitously common, it’s in most products—designer, Ikea, second hand or ultra cheap manufactured furniture: it’s the spongy, cushiony foam that’s in most mattresses, couches and lounge suites. It’s hard to avoid owning this product. It’s throw-out-all-your-furniture-and-sit-on-cotton-wool-or-latex-cushions-on-the-floor-if-you-want-to-avoid-it type of hard to avoid!
The testing went like this: we are all in a room where everyone has been told not to wear fragrance/deodorant/hairspray or scented products. Patients are undergoing testing, and these products contain some of the same chemicals/plant extracts and compounds that some patients are being tested for; and, the patients are told not to smoke on the day of testing; or bring in newspapers or freshly printed material (both for the same reasons). Just outside the room, there is an air filter/purifier, and a selection of spare rooms where patients can complete their testing if something in the main testing room is causing symptoms (like another patients washing powder/ fabric softer, or perfume residue. For people who wear perfume it’s difficult for them to get rid of the residue of it—just like a smoker’s cigarette smoke—it’s sticks to their hair and clothes; they can actually not be wearing it, but for someone chemically sensitive, unfortunately, the chemicals are still there and can still be a problem). Usually (out of the twelve times that I’ve been tested), I often ended up in a small room with a Blue Air air filter running; such was the nature of my sensitivities. A nurse would come and squirt a syringe (minus the needle, of course) of the testing substance under the tongue, and then we’d wait to see what would happen. Not being told what it is, because that would just mess with people’s expectation levels, patients are only told that sometimes, the solution will be saline water (and they all taste like saline at first) and sometimes it will be a chemical. (Placebo anyone?)
So, when I had this Polyurethane test (not knowing it was Polyurethane (or even what Polyurethane was)), my eyes and my throat went dry, my sinuses hurt, I could smell the other patients washing powder and shampoo—it was overpoweringly strong, so strong I could taste it! (These are symptoms that happen to me often.) I naturally assumed that it was the washing powders on the other patients clothes that had set the test off. (I now know that one of my symptoms to overexposure to chemicals is the increased sense of smell. (Actually, I’m not even sure if ‘sense’ is the right word to use, because it may be caused from the dryness in my throat and nasal cavities, making it seem as if things have a stronger odour.) But, once I was placed in another room, given a higher dose, the symptoms became worse: obviously a positive result for the test. They then worked at finding a safe dose to reverse the symptoms, so they could send me home with a few bottles so I could try and get relief at home. And then, to top up the levels on this drawn-out-annoying-deliberate-exposure-to-chemicals process, they did a few more tests as well.
After the testing was finished, back in the doctor’s office, I was told about the positive testing for Polyurethane. Dr Little put the suggestion to me that I buy a new mattress made from cotton or wool. This was before I knew about Organature, and to me, back then, ‘organics’, were just a wild urban myth (something for hippies!). And not only that, I didn’t have a clue that an organic mattress even existed. It seemed ridiculous to have to buy a different mattress, considering my—just six-month old—double ensemble ‘normal’ mattress was waiting for me at home. And it had no chemical smell at all; it seemed like it was just a bed. It didn’t seem fair. But there was worse to come. The test for polyester was positive also. And then Dr Little started on about my pyjamas!
Apparently, the sleeping environment is one of the most important places for a person who is sensitive to chemicals. And bedding and pyjamas must not contain allergens/irritants or synthetic chemicals that people have tested positive to: so, it was explained to me that cotton or wool would be the better choice, and to eliminate polyester entirely, from my sleeping environment.
The first replacement mattress I bought was a generic cotton futon from a mattress factory near Geelong. It was a disaster; I didn’t sleep on it for a year. I couldn’t. Just breathing near it would make me ill. (Other people sensitive to chemicals suggested the possibility to me that the cotton had been tread with pesticides.) These symptoms were different and much more serious (gut pain/tight breathing type) from what I usually experienced (back then anyway), so I put it in a spare room to air.
After a year, tired of sleeping on an old polyurethane single mattress, I’d wrapped in foil, I decided to try wrapping this generic cotton mattress in foil also. This time I chose a heavy-duty foil and wrapped it twice, using foil tape to seal around the edges. This worked a treat, or so I thought, because after another year (of sleeping on it) it began to get exceedingly hot in the centre of the mattress. (I had been experiencing the beginning of my recovery from extreme (for me anyway) chemical sensitivities (I’m talking complete isolation peoples) and I’d been having success with symptom free days and nights, and had managed to avoid exposures.) So when I began to have headaches and sinus pain at night… Dry eyes in the mornings… The severity of symptoms returning. We unwrapped it, and sure enough, it was mouldy! I’m talking big-black-patch-in-the-middle mouldy! Was it already damp, and wrapping it had caused mould to grow? Or was it the condensation caused by my body’s temperature and the fact that it could not breathe that caused it to go like that? Or, was it mould affected when I purchased it, and that was what had caused me to react to it? I don’t know. All I know is that wrapping a mattress to seal in allergens or irritants is a terrible idea. Don’t. Do. It. Ever! (Like anyone else in the world has done such a thing! Surely, I’m the only weirdo who wraps things in foil???)
The first organic cotton mattress:
Then, through AESSRA, I found out about Organature’s Organic Cotton Mattresses. $1200 was a lot to outlay on another mattress that may or may not be okay to sleep on. I took the chance and aired it out at a friend’s house. It was fine to use after only five weeks. It had a strong cottony odour—to me, but not to anyone else—and I wanted to be sure I was going to be okay with it before I used it. (For a chemically sensitive person, airing something for five weeks is not long at all! Some things can take a year or more; some things are never okay and it’s just easier to give them away or sell them, rather than putting up with the hassle of storing an item that makes a person sick whenever they are near it.) But it least when I held my face to it, even though it had a strong smell, it was not making me ill like the other mattress had! It wasn’t stinging my eyes or nose when I inhaled the smell, so that was a sign it was going to be fine… And it was!
So that is the story of how—five years ago—I came to buy my first organic cotton mattress. But the second one, this time, has been an extra pain in the sinus challenge because this time the smell of the cotton was way too strong. It was the exact same cotton as the last mattress, so I knew it wasn’t the actual cotton, it was me!
(It’s like this: when I breathe in strong odours–not even chemical ones–my sinuses ache, my head has a-tight-rubber-band feeling, my ears pop like I’m in a plane, and it feels as though the substance is in my eyes; depending on what this substance/smell is, it can be really uncomfortable. Burning-stinging-in-my-eyes uncomfortable. Also I can taste it. I know, weird. But I feel comfortable sharing this because 1. it may assist someone else, and 2. I’ve recovered from this once before, so I know that I will again, and I’m not actually weird (I just feel it sometimes); nor am I alone in this struggle!)
So, with my sinuses aching with inflammation and just breathing around the mattress (and everything else) hurting, I didn’t even try sleeping on it. I had to think laterally, and find a solution that would make it possible.
It was smoky, and damp outside. And at first I had the mattress out in the driveway, undercover: Autumn weather, we still had sunny days, very little rain, but the nights were cool. Then the rain came; and along with it came the anxiety over my new mattress absorbing moisture and going mouldy. I covered it with plastic sheeting, and the cotton bag that it was delivered in (Organature sell their mattresses wrapped in cotton, not plastic!). And it kept raining. Did I tell you cotton absorbs moisture? Well, I nearly drove myself to the funny farm over the idea of my $1200 mattress absorbing water and going mouldy, so I bought it inside and put it into my spare emergency safe room. There, I ran one of my trusty air filters. And that’s where it stayed until the time of writing this draft.
(Note: the foil on the floor. That’s how I solved two problems: the damp-coming-up-through-the-concrete problem, and the formaldehyde-fumes-from-the-glue-used-to-seal-the-chipboard-in-the-brand-new-floorboards-that-had-to-go-over-the-top-of-the damp-floor problem. But I’ll post more about that, and the materials I used, next time.)
And this is how I decided if the mattress was ready yet. I put it in the same room I sleep in but didn’t actually sleep on it; I just left it there, so that I could sleep near it and see if I was going to be okay with it. Ingenious hey?
(This room is safe for me—until it gets smoky outside; then I go into the emergency safe room in the first picture at the top of this post.The room in this photo was a gym, now it’s a bedroom/gym/office/TV room! It’s closed off from the mouldy part of the house. It’s a newer extension, and doesn’t have the damp concrete problem, or new floorboards for me to contend with. Lucky hey?)
After one night, I didn’t have any new symptoms (just the usual dry eyes and headachy stuffiness), and my breathing was fine, so I tried sleeping on it. And guess what? It was so awesomely good! I’ve had a few months of good sleep now. I’m not religious but I’m praying that if I eliminate all mould from my life, then I’ll get better, or at least back to where I was before I had a mould problem in my house…
(Note: on the other mattress, the mould was not visible, but it had lived in the room where the concrete grew damp patches of water whenever it rained outside (and still does). And when my health went downhill last year, and I discovered mould on the inside of my windows, I knew I’d found the reason my health had suffered. So when moving into this other room that I’d created to be a safe room, and I still had headaches when I woke up, I began to suspect the mattress. I could be relatively without sinus pain, sit on the mattress (especially on a hot day), close my eyes for a bit, and I’d feel the throbbing in my sinuses as I breathed through my nose, and the longer I sat there, the worse it got. Besides, it was the same symptoms I had from when I stupidly wrapped my other mattress in foil, five years ago, and it went mouldy. So that is how I knew I needed to get a new mattress. And I’m so thankful I did! Surely, I’m on my way out of the Labyrinth of Chemical Sensitivities…)
And thanks for reading my long winding post. Hope you got something out of it.
Have you ever had problems with a mattress? Do you think I’ve had it tough? There are people who can’t find any suitable bedding at all. Hell, there are people who are sleeping on the streets who don’t have a home and can’t afford a new mattress!
Organature (Organature will send out samples of materials used so that people can find out if they will be okay with them before outlaying the money on a mattress.)
Blessed Earth wool mattresses available online, and in QLD, Australia. (Blessed Earth will send out samples of the materials used so that people can see if they are okay with them).
Bedding in Dallas that may be suitable for people sensitive to chemicals
Natural Sleep Store, organic mattress showroom, Denver, Colorado, US
Nesting instinct: Bedding for the chemically sensitive an excellent article with lots of lateral-thinking ideas for bedding options
A Safe Bed to Sleep In: J. Camphill an excellent article with ideas for people who cannot tolerate cotton