Sleeping with the Enemy

5 minute read

Sleeping with the Enemy: What is Formaldehyde Doing in My Bed?

While testing our house for mold, we discovered that the air next to our bed exceeded the EPA limit for formaldehyde by 5.5 times! The poison was apparently off-gassing from the foam topper on our "organic" bed.

I know, right.

Formaldehyde is known to produce insomnia and respiratory symptoms, among other things. It's hard to get a mattress without it because of silly government regulations, says nontoxicbeds.com:

With the new flameproof mattress regulation all mattresses now contain toxic chemicals. With no labeling requirements, all mattresses deny using chemicals and green wash it.

Apparently, one branch of the government (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) can make laws that undermine the toxin limits set by another branch of government (EPA). Truly, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

These laws were overturned in California in 2013-2014, where they were the most draconian. But sadly, many manufacturers are still using flame retardants and formaldehyde as a voluntary precaution; it's the CYA approach: now that consumer expectation includes the idea that bedding should be flameproof, manufactures are more afraid of getting sued because their mattress caught fire than because you developed insomnia or asthma, or some other chronic poisoning syndrome from it.

There are a number of ways you can get around this toxic mattress madness according to nontoxicbeds.com:

You can order any of our mattresses and our government mandated flame retardant chemical based flame barrier is zippered and removable to access the layer system. You can order any of our mattresses without the flame barrier with a prescription from an MD, DO, or Chiropractor.

Our waterbeds are naturally toxin free and flame resistant. They are exempt from the regulation and contain no toxic chemicals.

You can build your own bed by ordering our foam layer pads, and cover with your own or our mattress pad/cover. (This option often saves money)

I'm sure there are other websites that offer this service as well. My advice is to get on it. Do some research. And consider the cost-benefit ratio of getting your life back with some chemical-free sleep.


So You've Been Embalmed.

Formaldehyde used to be just for dead people. Now it's also for people who are getting dead, or looking dead, or feeling crappy and wishing they were dead.

I told you that our "organic" bed was emitting 5.5 times the EPA limit for formaldehyde. It's all true and laboratory confirmed. But the cadaverous devil is in the details.

The culprit wasn't just our comfy foam topper. It was also our sheets!

Turns out we had been using these fancy wrinkle-free cotton sheets that were drenched in formaldehyde--that's what makes them wrinkle free. The popularity of wrinkle-free cotton shirts and sheets has put formaldehyde on the map and on our bodies, right next to our faces, where we can breathe in the fumes all day long and all night long.

Wrinkle-free cotton is treated with a formaldehyde resin that plasticizes the fibers and makes them behave more like polyester. Ta da. No more wrinkles. Never mind the cancer risk. Never mind the skin irritation and asthma risk. Convenience trumps common sense. Getting dead, being dead, it's all the same now and all the rage. You've been publically embalmed.

The New York Times notes that formaldehyde is in dozens of seemingly innocent and convenient products we buy all the time: wrinkle-free cotton shirts (especially men's shirts), sheets, pillowcases, drapes, baseball caps, and that swank upholstery on your Pottery Barn couch.

Put all these off-gassing products together under one roof and you've got a home that would smell like a toxic waste dump if you had a nose as good as your dog's. Unfortunately, most humans don't have a particularly keen sense of smell (or if they do, they learn to like that "new car smell", that giddy aroma of volatile organic compounds pickling their brains) so they have to wait till their bodies get sick before they get the message.

The New York Times goes on:

From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our clothing. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.

The United States does not regulate formaldehyde levels in clothing, most of which is now made overseas. Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of the chemical on labels. Here's more:

The textile industry for years has been telling dermatologists that they aren’t using the formaldehyde resins anymore, or the ones they use have low levels,” said Dr. Joseph F. Fowler, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville. “Yet despite that, we have been continually seeing patients who are allergic to formaldehyde and have a pattern of dermatitis on their body that tells us this is certainly related to clothing.

And more:

Given all of the things we buy new that can release formaldehyde in our house, all of those things contribute,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy at Consumers Union, who noted that the Environmental Protection Agency was currently developing formaldehyde emissions regulations for pressed-wood products. “Overall, minimizing your exposure is a good idea.”

Parting advice:

As for ridding clothes of wrinkles, she said, “We’re all for irons, to be honest.”


Live Simply. Simply Live.

As summer comes to a close and we start thinking about the great indoors again, I find I have this huge opportunity for awareness--awareness of formaldehyde and flame retardants. This will definitely influence my family's purchases of back-to-school shirts and sheets, mattresses, caps, couches, and anything else our dog thinks smells funny.

My advice:

Live clean.

Live beautiful.

Live simply, so that others (including yourself) may simply live.

Yours in Health and Resilience,
Marc Wagner, MD, MPH, NTP

Cover Photo by Quin Stevenson on Unsplash

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