Week of 1/13/08

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that traditional mattresses and bedding can cause environmental and health problems, and if so, what alternatives are out there?

—Jay & Aubrey Gillespie, via e-mail

With all we know today about synthetic chemicals and their effects on our health, going green in the bedroom—where we spend a third of our lives—makes more sense than ever.

Traditional mattresses and bedding contain a slew of potentially harmful chemicals that can "off-gas" from fabrics, padding and framing and get inhaled or ingested. One of the most harmful is formaldehyde, which is used in many adhesives and can cause eye and throat irritation, headaches and nervous system disorders. And carcinogenic flame-retardants known as PBDEs, many of which are now banned in Europe and some U.S. states, still turn up in some sleep products. Most people fare just fine on their mattresses despite proximity to such offensive substances, but those with sensitivities to synthetic chemicals might want to consider greener bedding options. Luckily, there are many varieties to choose from.

Some very affordable green mattress options are available from manufacturers like Lifekind, Cozypure, Vivetique/Dreamlite, Royal-Pedic, Greensleep/Vimala, EcoChoices and Keetsa. Most of these companies make mattresses with natural latex cores, wrapped in naturally flame-retardant cotton and/or wool. Online retailer Gaiam carries some of these brands, and Ikea also now offers PBDE-free mattresses that just about anyone can afford. Also, many independent green stores are sprouting up in communities around the country and are probably the first place to look in the interest of supporting local merchants and minimizing the need to ship products long distance.

Traditional mattresses and bedding contain a slew of potentially harmful chemicals that can "off-gas" from fabrics, padding and framing. Fortunately there are many alternatives now available, such as this organic, chemical-free mattress from Lifekind.© Lifekind

As for bedding, environmentalists" main bugaboo is the use of traditional cotton, which requires huge fertilizer and pesticide inputs to grow and causes pollution during the industrial bleaching process. But with consumer demand for greener products through the roof, organic unbleached cotton is becoming more widely available. Some leading organic cotton bedding labels to look for include Cozypure, Lifekind, Holy Lamb Organics, Mary Jane"s Farm, The Green Robin, Jan Eleni, Kushtush Organics, Native Organic, Northern Naturals and Under the Canopy, among many others. Most environmentalists embrace wool blankets for their warmth and breathability, although sustainably harvested down in organic cotton duvets provides a viable green alternative as well. Online retailer Greenandmore.com has a wide selection of environmentally friendly and hypoallergenic down comforters, as do many local green stores.

Once you"ve banned synthetics and chemicals from the bedroom, no doubt you and your whole family will rest a little bit easier.

CONTACTS: Lifekind; Cozypure; Greensleep/Vimala; EcoChoices; Keetsa; Gaiam; Ikea; Holy Lamb Organics; Mary Jane"s Farm; The Green Robin; Jan Eleni; Kushtush Organics; Native Organic; Northern Naturals; Under the Canopy; Green and More

Dear EarthTalk: My global warming guilt is starting to catch up with me, and I"ve heard that I can buy "carbon offsets" to help make things right. How do they work?

—Miranda Snavely, Milton, WA

Carbon offsets are monies that consumers and businesses pay voluntarily to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions they generate directly by driving, flying, running the air conditioning and otherwise using non-renewable energy. Companies and nonprofit groups that sell offsets use the dollars generated to fund alternative energy and other projects that will ultimately eliminate greenhouse gas emissions (such as wind farms that can replace coal-fired power plants in generating electricity).

"Carbon offsetting is one of many economic actions you can take to address climate change, and it is a powerful one," says the nonprofit Co-op America, "Many promising projects that would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions lack the capital they need to get built; by directing your offset dollars to these projects, you can help finance new wind farms, solar arrays, and more."

Wind farms, like the one pictured here, are just one of many alternative energy projects that carbon offsets pay for.© Getty Images

Dozens of carbon-offset vendors have sprung up in recent years. Consumers interested in buying offsets should do their homework, as some firms have better reputations than others. Co-op America recommends offsets that support specific projects that wouldn"t have happened otherwise and that have measurable near-term goals. Legitimate offset providers should also be able to back up all claims and show a clear money trail to the projects being funded. Co-op America urges consumers to avoid tree-planting programs, which are hard to quantify, and "climate exchange allowances" (also known as "pollution trading" or "emissions trading"), which many consider to be veiled ways of letting companies buy the right to pollute.

Co-op America lauds the Climate Trust (non-profit, funds wind farms in Oregon), TerraPass (for-profit, funds methane gas capture from landfills and farms), Native Energy (for-profit, funds new wind farms and solar arrays) and Sustainable Travel International"s MyClimate (non-profit, funds clean energy in developing countries) as some of the leading offset providers with reputable business models.

Those looking to dig deeper into the ways different offset providers operate should check out Clean Air-Cool Planet"s Consumer’s Guide to Carbon Offsets. The free 44-page PDF download assesses the strengths and weaknesses of some two-dozen carbon offset programs. The guide gives highest marks to Climate Trust, Native Energy and MyClimate, although other providers are also praised for specific programs. Another good free online resource comparing various offset programs on one page/chart is on the Carbon Offsets Survey page on the EcoBusinessLinks Environmental Directory.

Consumers should understand that offsets may be convenient, but are essentially only icing on the cake of an otherwise diligent effort to reduce emissions by using energy less and more efficiently. "All the offsets in the world won"t help us," warns Clean Air-Cool Planet, "if we in the U.S. don"t make big reductions in our overall greenhouse gas emissions and effect a transition away from wasteful use of fossil fuels."

CONTACTS: Co-op America; Climate Trust; TerraPass; NativeEnergy; Sustainable Travel International; Clean Air-Cool Planet; EcoBusinessLinks