Last Friday 22 August I had ABC Radio National’s Life Matters talkback program on in the background and I noticed that it was about ‘chemical overload’ and one of the guests was respected science journalist Julian Cribb. He has just published a new book, Poisoned Planet: How constant exposure to man-made chemicals is putting your life at risk. My ears pricked up as I am chemically sensitive, which means that I have adverse reactions to some human-made chemicals, particularly volatile organic compounds which can be used in paints, carpets, plastics, fungicides etc. The causes of this condition are not well understood (it is not the same as classic ‘allergic’ reactions – which I also have), but seem to relate to an inability of the liver to process certain of these chemicals.
Listening to the program reminded me of an experience in 2011 when I purchased a new inner spring mattress. I decided to phone in to the Radio National talkback and share my experience. You can hear the whole Life Matters program here as a podcast (my phone-in appears at around the 32:50 time stamp). That call has motivated me to further document this experience and relevant implications in this post, for the benefit of others who may experience similar problems.
Back in 2011 I decided a new inner spring mattress was in order as my existing one had faithfully served for some 20 years! I soon purchased a suitable mattress and had it delivered to my home. On the first night of sleeping on it I woke up during the night with itching sensations all over my body. It was impossible to sleep. The next morning I started to ponder the cause of this. At first I thought we might have changed laundry detergents, and maybe it was something in the bed sheets. But no, nothing had changed there. The following night I tried sleeping on the mattress again, with the same result. I noticed that in addition to the itching, I had a general feeling of unwellness the longer that I lay on the bed – it was a ‘familiar’ feeling that I recognized from other episodes of chemical exposure. So I moved to our spare room and slept on an older mattress there and was completely free of symptoms.
It was becoming clear to me that there was something in the new mattress that was causing this reaction. I started to do some research. First, I looked at the label on the mattress, and noted that it included a pesticide or ‘anti-microbial treatment’ called Ultra-Fresh. This was supposed to ward off fungi, bacteria and dust mites. It turns out that Ultra-Fresh is a chemical treatment produced by Thomson Research Associates based in Toronto Canada. It is used in Australia by (among others) Dunlop Foams, who probably make the bulk of the bedding foam that is used in inner spring mattresses and other foam bedding.
Then I tried to track down what exactly Ultra-Fresh was made of. This was not as easy as it might seem, as all of the Ultra-Fresh consumer web sites pointedly omit any reference to its chemical composition. In addition, there are several different formulations of Ultra-Fresh, using different chemicals for different applications. However, from my Internet searches it appeared the most likely candidate was Ultra-Fresh DM-50. DM-50 is designed for use in polyurethane foams and there is evidence that it is used, for example, in some yoga mats.
The active ingredient in Ultra-Fresh DM-50 is tri-n-butyltin maleate (acronym: TBT). This compound is part of the so called ‘organotin’ family and has been used widely as an anti-barnacle and anti-fouling paint on ship hulls – with very bad results for creatures in the surrounding marine environment. Its use for this purpose was banned internationally in 2008 but apparently it is still used in a few poorly regulated jurisdictions.
After a bit more digging, I hit gold: I found an excellent report by the USA Environmental Protection Agency (digression: a big thank you to President Richard Nixon for establishing EPA in 1969, for and good ol’ USA information transparency :-)). The title of report is Reregistration Eligibility Decision for the Tributyltin Compounds: Bis(tributyltin) oxide, Tributyltin benzoate, and Tributyltin maleate (Case 2620). It is basically a detailed review and risk assessment of what uses are permitted (ie ‘registered’) for tributyltin in the USA. On page 12 of this document appears the following ‘incident report’ in relation to residential uses of tributyltin:
One incident was reported in which a woman was exposed to pillows treated with a product containing tributyltin maleate. The exposure routes were dermal and ocular. The woman developed swelling in her mouth, cheeks, neck, lips, and throat. She had difficulty speaking. She also suffered irritation of the eyes and mouth, quivering of the jaws, and a lack of concentration.
That one ‘incident’ was sufficient for me, as a chemically sensitive person, to decide I did not want to sleep on a mattress treated with Ultra-Fresh — assuming that Ultra-Fresh DM 50 was being used. Fortunately I was able to arrange to return the mattress to the supplier and got most of my money refunded. However, I still had a quandary: where could I get a mattress that that was NOT treated with Ultra-Fresh? It turns out that all inner spring mattresses in Australia now include this stuff in their foam – most likely supplied by Dunlop.
After some more Internet research I tracked down one retailer in Perth, Western Australia, who imports high quality foam mattresses from a German manufacturer. Due to a heightened awareness and concern about these chemical issues in parts of Europe, these mattresses are not treated with Ultra-Fresh or similar chemicals.
I am in Brisbane and Perth is on the other side of the country, but fortunately I do travel to Perth fairly frequently. I was able to visit the folks at Bedtek in Beaconsfield, and checked out their mattresses. I was suitably impressed and they were happy to ship the mattress (and a new bed frame as well) to me in Brisbane. Long story short, I received the new imported mattress from Bedtek and have had no problems ever since.
At minimum, this experience raises some basic questions of consumer and supplier awareness, and consumer choice. I wonder how many others there are out there who may be chemically sensitive and who are unwittingly being exposed, nightly and at close quarters, to an organic chemical which is adding to their daily chemical load? (Minimizing/avoiding chemical load is the basic recommended strategy for those with chemical sensitivities). For example, the following anecdote from a discussion group thread about the use of Ultra-Fresh in a ‘wool topper’ (wool mattress overlay) in 2010 is indicative:
Thank you, thank you for this information. It is a comfortable mattress indeed, but now knowing I’ve been sleeping on tricolsan or tributyltin maleate makes it perfectly clear to me why I got so sick within 2 weeks of sleeping on this dunlop mattress. I have been sick for 4 years now. I have multiple chemical sensitivity. It is severe, I am housebound & in constant pain. The first clue was the shortness of breath. Wouldn’t go away, no doctor could explain it. Then the crushing fatigue, I was a dance teacher & could suddenly not walk straight – and quickly not at all. I am so sick after sleeping on this mattress 3 years, but I became sick in much less than 1 month of it’s arrival. I have been off it a year but MCS does not disappear so quickly & I have a long road to recovery if ever I do (most don’t). Be so careful of what you sleep on, the flame retardants in mattresses are health hazard enough but if you see anything marked “ultra-fresh” remember my story & I hope you will be luckier than I.
One may also lament the total lack of awareness of these issues among bedding retailers and indeed the manufacturers of these products. The irony is that these Ultra-Fresh mattresses are often promoted as ‘allergy-free’ because they do indeed reduce the prevalence of dust mites which are a cause of respiratory allergies. But there is no awareness that Ultra-Fresh may also be contra-indicated for allergy sufferers who also happen to be chemically sensitive. At the very least, labeling on mattresses could warn of this possibility. (I also do wonder about the long term impacts of such chemicals on those who are not chemically sensitive – but I guess that is another story….)
The other obvious option from a consumer point of view is for suppliers to provide a choice for consumers as to whether they want their mattresses treated with Ultra-Fresh. I suspect that it is only quite recently (ie past decade) that this treatment has become virtually standard on all mattresses in Australia. There are no doubt other ways to manage the problem of fungi and dust mites in bedding, rather than having this one chemical solution imposed across the entire marketplace.
The broader irony here is that all of these human-made chemicals have been developed and widely applied to solve real human problems – how to ensure clean bedding, improve human health etc. (See this quite fascinating article about the use of antimicrobials in textitles which highlights the health aspects). But what is often not appreciated in the positive or optimistic narrative of technological progress is that modern technologies almost invariably incur both risks and benefits. Too often the benefits are foregrounded while the risks and harms are not thoroughly investigated, understood or regulated.
Which brings me to a very interesting conclusion contained in the EPA report cited above, on page 29:
Based on the risk assessment and the assumptions cited above, and in the absence of relevant data, the Agency has determined that the uses of TBT on textiles and related materials that have the potential for prolonged dermal exposure or incidental oral exposure (e.g., clothing, mattress and pillow covers and ticking, sponges, mop heads, canvas or other fabrics for furniture cushions and hammocks) are not eligible for reregistration (emphasis added). The uses of TBT in textiles and related materials that are not associated with prolonged human exposure (e.g., paper, fiberfill or foam in upholstered furniture (but not for mattress pads); carpet backing; air filters; rubber mats; canvas and other fabrics for tarps, awnings, and tents; and webbing used for golf course/driving range protective netting, netting for baseball batting cages, and tennis nets) are eligible for reregistration. Labeling is required to prohibit the use of paper containing TBT for direct and indirect food contact.
This raises an interesting question: why then is Dunlop apparently using Ultra-Fresh DM 50 for its mattress foam in Australia if the EPA is not endorsing it? Of course technically, EPA regulation does not extend to Australia, but the USA EPA is regarded as the flagship for environmental risk assessment and regulation.
The main Ultra-Fresh web site claims that:
Ultra-Fresh has had to pass the most stringent testing procedures for safety and efficacy to meet international regulatory guidelines. Ultra-Fresh is US EPA registered, BPD compliant and Oeko-Tex listed, and complies with all regulatory requirements of each country where it is sold.
Yes, Ultra-Fresh is US EPA registered, but for what uses is that registration valid? By my reading of the EPA’s 2008 Registration Eligibility Decision, Ultra Fresh DM 50 is NOT valid for bedding.
I conclude with the caveat that I am not yet 100 per cent certain that Dunlop is using DM 50 (rather than another formulation of Ultra-Fresh which does not contain tributyltin), although the evidence so far points that way. I will be making further enquiries of Dunlop and the Australian regulatory authorities, and will be happy to stand corrected if I am mistaken in my interpretation of the situation. Watch this space.