People spend up to 90% of their life indoors and 30% of this may be in the bedroom1. Sleeping, reading or relaxing, the bedroom is a key area to address in order to achieve a healthy home living environment. The promotion of good sleep patterns has been established as a critical determinant of health2and the quality of the indoor air environment can significantly impact the health of an individual. Nicotine, polycyclic hydrocarbons, allergens and phthalates have all been measured in indoor environments3, and it has been shown that environmental conditions within the home can also exacerbate asthmatic children’s symptoms4.
There are a range of categories that should be considered in terms of the general indoor environment (eg paint and flooring) and there are specific characteristics of bedrooms (eg plush toys and bedding) that can make them more susceptible to some contaminants.
Paint and Flooring
Paint and flooring can have an impact in your bedroom as well as throughout your home. Paint can contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), these are chemicals that are emitted from liquid and solid materials, and in particular are associated with oil based paints5. VOCs can irritate the throat and lungs6and in the past decade significant steps have been taken to reduce and remove the amount of VOCs used in paint. While VOCs are the main health concern in paints for those suffering from asthma, there are a range of other chemicals in paints that may pose health concerns in general7. Paint products should be selected carefully, taking due consideration of any chemical sensitivities.
Flooring covers a wide range of products, and your selection can have a significant impact on your indoor air quality. Positive effects of flooring include trapping dust and dirt, as well as having easy cleaning surfaces. Negative effects are predominantly based on the chemicals used in the manufacture of the flooring, or of the adhesive used to secure the flooring (through emission of VOCs).
Linoleum or laminate wood flooring have been recommended for a long time for those suffering from asthma and allergies, due mainly to their low ability to retain allergens8, and their ease of cleaning. While this may be beneficial for some sufferers, it is not the whole story. While carpet can retain allergen, it can also act as a sink for allergens. Where laminate floors may allow dust and allergen to float around, the carpet traps the allergen within the pile of the carpet9,10. Effective cleaning, for both these types of surfaces, is the key.
Plush toys and bedding can have a more specific impact in the bedroom as they are mostly encountered in this environment. Toys (predominantly plush toys) can act as a significant reservoir of dust mites, as well as being a potential source of VOCs. The stuffing of plush toys makes them an ideal breeding ground for dust mites and so the key part of a control plan is to minimise build-up of the dust mites; the most effective way to do this is through regular washing.
Bedding is a crucial element to address within the bedroom environment. Young children can spend more than 12 hours a day in a bed and up to 8 hours a day as they grow older11. The main characteristics to consider are chemicals that may act as airway irritants or skin sensitizers, and dust mites that may accumulate in the mattress, pillows and comforters.
To aid in maintaining a healthy home environment, bedding products should be selected that have been tested to ensure that they do not contain trigger chemicals above biologically relevant levels. Use of these chemicals is to impart some type of functionality to the product, but may have detrimental side effects12,13. While most reputable suppliers will engage in safety testing, the global supply chain means that products can enter the supply chain that may not be as safe as others.
Controlling exposure to allergens is a key aspect of a healthy home environment. Particularly in the bedroom environment, high levels of dust mites can be found in dust from mattresses, pillows, carpets, upholstered furniture, bed covers, clothes and soft toys14. An allergic response to the presence of dust mites can be to the intact live dust mite, or to their body parts. Protection therefore must be effective against active transport (the intact dust mite travelling to different parts of the bed) and passive transport (body parts of the dust mite being expelled throughout the bedding through disturbance of the bedding).
Effective bedding encasings are a well established way to protect sensitive individuals from exposure to dust mite allergen and can be applied to mattresses, comforters and pillows15,16. House dust mite allergen can be as small as 10 microns and so preventing passage of these minute particles through textile fabrics can be challenging (a full stop is about 400 micron). A wide range of bedding from a variety of suppliers is available to address this challenge but it is important to consider the product characteristics when purchasing – A plastic bag will not let any particles through, but it also won’t be very comfortable to sleep on!
Encasements for pillows, mattresses and comforters will have some kind of fastener, like a zipper, and passage of allergen through these parts of the product must also be tested and proven to prevent allergen passage. Similarly to plush toys, bedding items should be of sufficient quality to be washed routinely at a temperature high enough to kill any dust mites (130°F), without losing their product integrity. This consistent product integrity refers to both the conformity of the product in terms of a pillow, but also for seam and zipper integrity, to prevent passage of allergens.
Determining what products are more appropriate for a healthy home environment is difficult – how do you know if a bedding encasing has a pore size small enough to prevent allergen passage, and can you be confident in this performance?
There are a number of certification programs that can be used to compare flooring, paints, cleaning products, etc to demonstrate that they emit less VOCs or use more ‘friendly’ chemicals (Oeko Tex, ECARF, Allergy UK, Greenguard). Certification of products, such as bedding and plush toys to demonstrate their performance in terms of allergen control is however a more specialised area.
Allergy Standards Limited (ASL) established a certification program in 2006 to address exactly these specialised challenges. The asthma and allergy friendly® Certification Program is operated by ASL in collaboration with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), Asthma Canada (AC) and is also operated internationally through a global certification mark. A founding ethos for the Program was in response to consumer confusion over what products would be suitable for those suffering from asthma and allergies. ASL only certify products that have undergone physical testing at their, or their partners’ accredited testing laboratories, according to specific testing standards. These standards are developed and reviewed by external independent scientific experts at either AAFA or ASC and are only adopted following their approval. In this way, ASL maintain an independent and robust certification program. The asthma and allergy friendly® Certification Program maintains a focus on consumer products that will have a direct benefit to those suffering from asthma and allergies, and has a focus on bedding products, as well as other consumer products that may contribute to a healthy home environment.
A healthy home environment is substantially dependent on the items that are introduced to it. In order to ensure the most beneficial environment, these items should be carefully selected based on all available information. Reliable and trustworthy third party certification programs are an essential part of this decision making process.
About the author
Thanks to Dr. Tim Yeomans for this insightful article.
Dr. Tim Yeomans is the Centre Manager for Shannon Applied Biotechnology Centre, a collaboration between two third level colleges in Ireland. Tim holds a PhD in Microbiology and postgraduate qualifications in Technology Commercialisation and Innovation Management. Tim has worked in research and development for 20 years, both in industry and academia. In his role in Shannon ABC, Tim is responsible for the scientific direction of the Centre, intellectual property management and business and technology development.
Bedroom, health, bedding, safety, consumers, manufacturers, indoor environment, allergy, asthma, certification, allergy insights, healthier home, indoor air quality.
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