Dust mites are everywhere. They are true survivors, able to make it in virtually all climates and at any altitude. They thrive, however, in our homes, especially bedrooms, enjoying the humidity generated by all the breathing, perspiring, and drooling we do at night and feeding on all the skin flakes we produce. For these tiny creatures, we’re living, breathing humidifier-refrigerator-landlords who charge extremely competitive rates. Why wouldn’t they infest us?
In the last couple weeks we’ve taken a look at sleep posture, how to improve it, and modern bedding. Today we’ll take a closer look at your mattress, investigating what may be lurking inside and what you can do about it.
In “Toward a Comparable Developmental Ecology of Human Sleep,” Carol Worthman presents a potential motivation for the relative “minimization of bedding” among hunter-gatherers, apart from logistical, technological, or climatic limitations: the avoidance of allergenic dust mites and other parasitic bed-mates. All that cloying, billowing fluffiness we like to ensconce ourselves in provides room (and even board) to vast numbers of dimunitive, multi-legged squatters. Our bedding, you might say, can play host to a host of parasites, especially if you live as many traditional hunter-gatherers live (and lived) – in close, often direct contact with the natural environment. Worthman mentions an increase in asthma rates immediately following the introduction of Western-style blankets to the highland tribes of Papua New Guinea, presumably caused by the hordes of dust mites finding new purchase in the blankets.
Dust mite detritus is highly allergenic to humans. It can trigger asthma in people, and common side effects of exposure to dust mite allergens include itchiness, red or watering eyes, eczema flare-ups, runny nose, and clogging of the lungs. These are your basic, garden-variety allergenic symptoms, but they’re no less annoying or frustrating. They can drive a person up a wall and really hamper quality of life; I for one know that when it comes to itchy eyes, nose, or throat, I turn into a huge complainer. Maybe it’s because colds, sniffles, and allergies are relatively rare since embarking on this Primal journey, and maybe I’ve simply grown soft and unable to deal with what most folks think are inevitable, “just deal with it” ailments, but either way, they’re no fun. No one should have to deal with this stuff. Many of us do, though, because we enjoy the creature comforts of modern living. Now, before you toss out your mattresses, burn your bedding and renounce your Tempurpedic, there are other ways to deal with dust mites.
It’s not the actual dust mite that bugs us (yes, pun intended); it’s the allergenic refuse that it creates. Experts suggest around 18% to 30% of Americans are sensitive to dust mite detritus, so habitual cleaning/removal of the offensive material should help us avoid the allergenic reactions. A few companies offer either intensive ultraviolet-C light treatment or high-powered steam treatment to kill the mites, followed by a vigorous vacuuming to remove the dead mites and their waste material. Although corroborating research is scant, it seems plausbile that ultraviolet light and high-powered steaming would kill a large amount of near-microscopic arachnids.
And vacuums certainly work. In fact, weekly, thorough vacuuming of your house is pretty effective at removing dust mite droppings, and it can even take care of the mites themselves. Do the carpet, the drapes, the furniture, and textiles, all of which can house mites, making sure to dust everything beforehand (consider using a damp cloth, instead of a dry duster, which often just spreads the dust around). One study found that while deep vacuuming was effective at reducing allergens, deep vacuuming coupled with steam cleaning resulted in longer-lasting reductions.
Some more do-it-yourself options: install special zippered covers for all your bedding (sheets, mattress, pillows, comforter, etc); regular hot water washings of sheets (be sure to use hot water – 140 °F or 60 °C is most effective – and maintain a strict laundering schedule, as research shows that “compliance” is often more important than laundry method), casings, and adjacent stuffed animals; conversion to hardwood floors; and maintain a tidy room free of excessive clutter.
Since dust mites are attracted to humidity, lowering your humidity may help keep the population at bay.
Furry pets can also provide food for dust mites. While I think the benefits of a good, loyal pet by your side outweigh any threat posed by dust mites, it’s something to keep in mind. Consider extra vacuuming, at least.
Last week’s bedding post also garnered questions about off-gassing – also known as out-gassing – which describes the slow, gradual release of a gas that is contained, absorbed, or present in a material. In our case, off-gassing refers to the presumably toxic/potentially harmful release of chemical gases from bedding. Flame retardants, especially, have been targeted as potential dangers.
Research is scant, and a definitive answer cannot be given, but we do know that new mattresses often give off powerful “chemical” odors for a the first few weeks, especially in enclosed rooms, and there are plenty of anecdotal reports of illness, dizziness, brain fuzziness, among other negative effects, correlating positively with the arrival of the “new mattress smell.”
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are effective flame-retardants. When flame is exposed to a material treated with PBDE, bromine is released that robs the air of the oxygen necessary for fire. They are also pretty effective at disrupting hormone levels in the thyroid gland, affecting neuronal pathways, reducing fertility, and impacting the regular brain development of young children and infants. Until quite recently, many foam mattresses were made using PBDE as the retardant. Flame-retardants are required by law to be incorporated into mattresses (although retardant-less mattresses are made available to those with doctors’ notes proving they have an intensely negative reaction to the chemicals contained therein), and PBDE was simply one of the most effective and readily available. Luckily, most governmental bodies have banned the use of PBDE. The EU no longer allows it, and certain states, including California, Washington, and Maine, have instituted state-wide bans on the sale of products containing PBDE. That’s all well and good, but the stuff is persistent.
“No matter where we’ve looked – whether it’s the Arctic or an urban center or the Antarctic, [PBDEs] are everywhere,” says Michael Ikonomou, a research scientist with Canada’s Oceans’ Institute of Ocean Sciences. It shows up in human breast milk, especially US breast milk, along with the infants and tots who consume it. Altough, as Ikonomou points out, PBDE is everywhere, perhaps the most concentrated source of exposure to it comes when we sleep, for six to eight hours each night, on mattresses imbued with PBDE. The longer we own the mattress and the more it breaks down, the more PBDE is released, is off-gassed.
Avoid mattresses manufactured before 2005, unless the manufacturers specify they’re PBDE-free.
Read mattress labels. Avoid anything that’s made with polyurethane foam. That’s probably full of PBDE.
Toss out old mattresses, especially if the actual foam is exposed and beginning to degrade.
Most mattress manufacturers are wising up and curtailing the use of PBDE, but always do your own research before purchasing a mattress, especially the memory foam variety. A potential problem remains, of course: we still require flame retardants in mattresses, so companies have simply moved on to a new retardant known as antimony trioxide.
Antimony trioxide is a known carcinogen, but most research has been conducted on miners, smelters, and other professions where people are actually inhaling the stuff. It remains to be seen whether sleeping on mattresses that use antimony trioxide is harmful, but in the end, you’re still dealing with a toxin.
You could go always go for natural latex mattresses, which are naturally flame-resistant, as many of my readers have, but then you’re dealing with the looming specter of latex allergy, which some sources claim affects up to 12% of the population.
Again, I’d suggest you seriously consider tossing your old mattresses, since we know that PBDE is definitely bad stuff (especially for the young ones and the mothers, who should probably be more vigilant about bedding choices), and make cleaning/vacuuming to remove detritus a regular habit. Whatever you do, though, don’t let the decision control your life, paralyze you with fear, or make you feel like you have to sleep on the (non-treated) hardwood floor. (You won’t see me giving my bed up anytime soon!) After all, life is increasingly about navigating a world of chemicals and trade-offs, and you have to sleep somewhere. Simply avoid the flagrant, obvious bedding dangers and get on with your Primal life.
Let me and the MDA community know your thoughts in the comment board and Grok on!