You’d probably like to think you’re safe and sound when snuggling under the covers in bed. A firm mattress, clean sheets, and a comfy pillow and you’re all set for eight hours of rest and relaxation for body and mind, right? Wrong.

From memory loss to headaches, depression itchy eyes, an array of health problems can arise from exposure to seemingly innocent bedroom objects. MostĀ mattressesĀ and pillows, for example, are filled with chemical-drenched synthetic fibers such as polyurethane foam that release chemicals into the air for years; these airborne toxins can cause headaches and nausea, and even lead to multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition that stems from exposure to toxic chemicals and results in a myriad of crippling symptoms. Microscopic dust mites (and their allergenic fecal matter) frequently infest mattresses, pillows, and carpeting, leading to respiratory problems including coughing and sinus congestion. And electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, which can be emitted from your alarm clock, have been linked to cancer.

Consider one woman’s story: About sixteen years ago, Lynn Marie Bower of Bloomington, Indiana, was remodeling an old home with her husband when she developed MCS. She says it was fixing up the bedroom that pushed her over the edge,

“The last room we did was the master bedroom. We put in new carpeting, sheets, and draperies. We also had new furniture. I got very, very ill,” she says. “I started to get weak and was having severe breathing problems. My hair changed in texture and was thinning. And I got severe acne and joint pain. I had no idea what was going on, but it was obvious it had to do with the house.”

After realizing her symptoms were the result of fumes from synthetic materials, Bower and her husband sold their newly remodeled home and built another with low-toxic materials. Today, Bower has learned to manage her MCS, in part by decorating her home with natural wood, metal, and cotton materials. She has also authored The Healthy Household A Complete Guide for Creating a Healthy Indoor Environment.

Fortunately, making your bedroom a safer and more restful environment does not require such a dramatic overhaul. It just involves recognizing the following danger zones so you can naturalize and improve your bedroom, bit by bit.

  • DANGER ZONE ONE: THE SHEETS

You spend a third of your life – that’s twenty-five years – in bed, sleeping with pillowcases pressed against your nose and mouth, and sheets rubbing your skin. With such intimate contact, you should choose your bed linens with great care.

Most sheets on the market today are coated with a formaldehyde finish, which allows the sheets to resist wrinkling. The finish is permanent and cannot be removed from die fiber. Unfortunately, fabrics coated with formaldehyde will release gases for life (at a rate of eight hundred to one thousand parts per million). The National Academy of Sciences estimates that up to a fifth of the general population may be sensitive to formaldehyde gases, even at very low concentrations (0.05 parts per million). Symptoms of formaldehyde sensitivity include tiredness insomnia, coughing, irritation of the throat and eyes, headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds. Skin contact can also cause mild to severe skin rashes. Formaldehyde is also a suspected carcinogen.

Here is a rundown of dangers to avoid, and die natural alternatives to look for, when choosing bedding options.

WATCH OUT FOR

Polyester and polyester-blend percales. Polyester percale sheets (and blankets) are actually just soft thermoplastic, which is made from petrochemicals. The least comfortable and most harmful bed linens you can buy are polyester “no-iron” sheets. Not only are they made from petrochemicals, but they are treated with a formaldehyde resin finish. Cotton/polyester-blend, wrinkle-resistant sheets are also treated with formaldehyde.

NATURAL OPTIONS

All-cotton percales. Combed-cotton percale sheets, with at least two hundred threads per square inch, have the tightest weave and the softest, smoothest texture. Don’t be fooled by the percale all-cotton sheets labeled “easy care” or “no-iron,” which are treated with formaldehyde. Instead, look for natural sheets made from unbleached cotton. Sheets made with “green cotton” have not been treated with chemicals during manufacturing. Not only are they chemical free, they also have a soft, silky feel that actually grows softer with age. And, unlike synthetic-fiber sheets, 100 percent-cotton sheets won’t “pill up” and produce those little balls that give sheets a gritty feel. Cotton percale sheets are available from department stores and from Earth Care and Garnet Hill catalogs.

Cotton flannel sheets. Although they’re less durable than percale, flannel sheets are naturally wrinkle-resistant and feel toasty during the cold months. A flannel top sheet also makes a breathable light blanket during the summer. Look for them from Garnet Hill and Seventh Generation. Heart of Vermont offers flannel sheets made with organically grown cotton.

Organic linen sheets. The ultimate in the natural-fiber route are linen sheets. But be warned: They’re expensive.

Always wash bed linens (even all-cotton ones) before using them the first time. To avoid wrinkles hang them outdoors in the fresh air, or put them in the dryer and then remove as soon as they’re dry.

  • DANGER ZONE TWO: MATTRESSES AND PILLOWS

Mattresses and pillows may be the biggest bedroom health offenders because most of them are stuffed with polyurethane foam – which can cause respiratory problems as well as skin and eye irritation – and because they harbor dust mites. Dust mites, found in all homes, are tiny insects whose fecal matter causes allergic reactions in five hundred million people around the world, according to Deborah Parrish, founder and president of Priorities, a mail-order catalog with products for allergy relief, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The mattress foam also releases toluene diisocyanate, a chemical that can cause severe lung problems. The highest concentrations of these hazardous chemicals are emitted in the first few years of the man’s life.

WATCH OUT FOR

Polyurethane foam mattress and pillows. Chances are when you visit a department store to buy a new pillow or mattress, you’ll have a tough time finding anything other than polyester or foam-filled varieties.

NATURAL OPTIONS

Natural coil mattresses. Cotton mattresses and box springs that feature both cotton batting (stuffing) and ticking (fabric covers) are available from Crown City Mattress and Allergy Resources. Organic cotton mattresses are also available but require a doctor’s permission to be purchased legally because they don’t have the flame-resistant finish required by federal law.

Futons. Futons are thin, cotton-covered and cotton-filled mattresses. If you don’t mind their dense feel, you’ll find they are a natural alternative to synthetic coil mattresses and emit few, if any, gases. Another bonus: Futon mattresses tend to cost less than half the price of a box spring and mattress set. And unlike the futon frames of the past that sat only a few inches from the floor, futon bedframes are now made that look like upright beds. They’re usually made from solid wood, which is another important feature in bedroom furniture (see Danger Zone five).

Cotton pillows. Pillows are like mini-mattresses that your face presses against for hours and hours, night after night. Cotton-filled pillows from KB Cotton Pillows and organic cotton pillows from Seventh Generation are recommended alternatives to chemical-drenched polyester foam.

Buckwheat pillows. For nontoxic pillows that offer more substantial back and neck support, try buckwheat hull pillows. They conform to the shape of your neck and head to relieve – and avoid – muscle strain while you sleep. Look for these from Dreamtime.

Mattress pads. Mattress pads protect your mattress and add an extra layer of comfort. Most mattress pads found in stores are made from polyester. But all-cotton mattress pads, which are softer and warmer, can be found in many natural bedding catalogs. Try the cotton chenille mattress pad from Seventh Generation.

Mattress covers. Beyond chemical allergies, many people are sensitive to mold and the fecal matter left behind by dust mites, both of which can build up in your mattress and pillow. Symptoms of sensitivity include respiratory problems. While dust mites can’t be easily eliminated, a simple solution is available. Tightly woven cotton terry/polyester-blend mattress and pillow covers from Priorities are not treated with formaldehyde and are guaranteed to seal in dust mite fecal matter, eliminating allergic reactions.

  • DANGER ZONE THREE: EMFs

Electromagnetic fields, the invisible forces produced by electricity and emitted by electrical appliances, have been linked to serious health problems, from brain tumors to breast cancer. To protect yourself, keep TVs, computers, electric heaters, electric clocks, and other electrical appliances at least three feet from your bed. After that distance, EMFs drop off rapidly.

WATCH OUT FOR

Electric alarm clocks. Alarm clocks, particularly the old, dial-faced models, are notorious EMF emitters.

TVs and VCRs. Many people make a habit of falling asleep with the television turned on. However, TVs and VCRs are powerful EMF emitters.

Electric blankets. Electric blankets could be one of the most dangerous EMF emitters in the room. Because they remain plugged in (and hot), and because they remain directly over your body for hours on end, you are exposed to a steady stream of EMF’s all night long. In addition, electric blankets are almost always made from polyester, which is not only irritating to the skin but also emits hazardous formaldehyde gases.

NATURAL OPTIONS

Alarm clocks. Your best bet is to use wind-up or battery-powered varieties of alarm clocks. If you do use an electric alarm, put it out of reach so you’re out of EMF range.

TVs and VCRs. If you choose to have a television and/or VCR in your bedroom, be sure to place them at least three feet from your bed and avoid leaving them on all night while you’re sleeping.

Cotton thermal blankets keep you warm and they breathe to regulate body temperature. Cotton blankets are also softer and heavier than the polyester kind. If you can’t part with your electric blanket, use it to “preheat” the bed, then unplug it and sleep with a natural cotton blanket.

Electric heaters and humidifiers. A common bedroom source of EMFs, these should be kept at least three feet from the bed.

  • DANGER ZONE FOUR: CARPETING

When you installed that new carpeting in your bedroom, you probably never dreamed it could harm you.

Today, 97 percent of all carpets are made from synthetic fibers. In fact, they’re often layered with synthetics, from the foam padding to the latex backing to the wear- and stain-resistant finishes. Numerous cases have been documented of children and adults becoming ill from the hundred or more gases emitted from carpeting, including benzene, formaldehyde, and xylene. A chemical called 4-phenylcyclohexene (4-PC) is responsible for the “new carpet smell” and can cause burning eyes, chills and fever, memory loss, blurred vision, and depression. The greatest quantities of gases are emitted in the first five years of the carpet’s life, and drop off significantly after that.

If you’ve installed synthetic carpeting in the 1990s, you may want to apply a vapor barrier sealant – available from Allergy Resources – which will block a significant percentage of the fumes.

In addition to the concern about gases, wall-to-wall carpeting is difficult to clean thoroughly. When your carpet is dirty, you bring dirt into your bed via your feet, which also creates a breeding ground for dust mites.

NATURAL OPTIONS

Natural carpeting. Natural carpets made from cotton Or wool are available from Nontoxic Environments. They will give your room that cozy carpeted feeling without filling the air with chemical fumes. Be sure the carpets you choose have not been treated with stain-resistant chemicals, fire retardants, or pesticides.

Hardwood floors. Hardwood floors are durable and treasured for their varied texture and warm, natural look. And unlike carpeting, hardwood floors are easily cleaned with a broom and mop. Natural cotton, jute, and coil rugs add warmth and appeal and just need a good shake to get the dirt out. Look for cotton rugs from Hayim & Co. and Import Specialists. If you’d rather cover your floors more completely, Import Specialists also makes natural-fiber rugs that are large enough to be used instead of wall-to-wall carpets.

  • DANGER ZONE FIVE: BEDROOM FURNITURE

Today, most affordable bedroom furniture (bedframes, dressers, and nightstands) is constructed from a material known as particleboard, which is pressed wood shavings held together with ureaformaldehyde resin. Particleboard – even more so than your mattress – emits dangerous formaldehyde gases into the air

NATURAL OPTIONS

Antiques. Your grandmother’s bedroom set may be your safest furniture choice. Antique (or at least, significantly aged) bedroom furniture is usually made with solid or veneered wood, as opposed to venerred particle-board. Furniture emits gases most severely during its first five to ten years, so headboards, nightstands, and dressers that are fifty or more years old no longer emit gases at dangerous levels.

Hardwood or wrought iron. If you’re buying new furniture, look for hardwood and wrought iron pieces. You can buy quality bedframes, nightstands, dressers and unfinished and natural-wood furniture stores in your area.