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Health Zone: What's lurking in your bed?; Your sheets may be pristine but the teeming mass of bacteria and dust mites beneath them could be making you ill. We analysed the contents of one woman's mattress...then told her how to reclaim it.


WILL you be sleeping by yourself tonight? Not likely. Even if you don't share your bed with a loved one you'll be snuggling up with millions of bacteria, fungus and dust mites.

A Health Zone investigation analysed the mattress of 25-year-old nurse Kelly Mash - and found 100,000 bugs in every gramme of mattress dust extracted from her bed. They included a dozen major groups of bacteria and fungi, plus allergens. These have been linked to infections, outbreaks of food poisoning, and allergies including asthma, eczema and rhinitis.

Kelly's mattress was very much alive. "When viewed under the microscope, it resembled a rainforest because its ecosystem is so rich and complicated," says microbiologist Dr Anthony Cooke.

"Unfortunately, Kelly is the main food source. We all lose about a pint of sweat every night and five grammes of skin a week. That all goes onto the sheet and can find its way into the mattress."

Add a helping of dog and cat hair, sand, grit and soil dragged in on clothing, pollen and fungal spores blown in through open windows.

Then finish off with belly-button fluff, bits of tissue, a dash of coffee and sprinkling of toast crumbs and you have the perfect recipe for bed bug haute cuisine. Kelly, from Worthing, West Sussex, works at the town's hospital as a senior staff nurse, so she knows all about fighting infection on the wards.

When it comes to her own bed, however, Kelly is less fussy. For the past five years she has been using a bed base and mattress bought second-hand from a friend.

"I didn't ask how long she'd had it before selling it to me - I thought it best not to know," says Kelly. "It looked clean and felt comfortable and, for pounds 50, you don't really argue.

"A friend who works for a building firm took it to the house I was living in.

"He wrapped it in a blanket and threw it in the back of his open-top van, with all the brick dust and rubbish.

"I had a boyfriend for the three years I was at university so we shared the bed. There were two cats in the house as well.

"I like to have breakfast in bed and I'm sure that over the years I've spilled loads of tea and coffee and bits of toast on the mattress - plenty for the bugs to feed on."

"For our analysis of Kelly's bed, we asked Don Pringle, director of operations for ServiceMaster Environmental Protection Services, to clean Kelly's bed using a vacuum cleaner with a very fine filter.

Don then gave Kelly's mattress the company's diathermic heat treatment, covering the bed in a special tent and heating it to get rid of dust mites, fungi and bacteria before vacuuming it again.

Then we took the "before" and "after" dust samples to the labs of Cambridgeshire firm Acaris Healthcare Solutions, which specialises in detecting dust mites and other allergens.

"We sieved the samples to remove all the fluff, hair and bits of tissue," says managing director Dr Ramin Pirzad.

"We were left with an incredibly fine talcum powder which can be anything from light grey to dark brown in colour.

"The dust from Kelly's bed was quite brown - darker than you would find in a newer bed - which indicates that dead skin has been building up for a while and the mattress is harbouring an abundance of bacteria, fungi and dust mites.

"There was 11.5g of powder in total, which is at the upper end of the scale. But from a reallyold mattress you might get 30g - enough to fill a large mug."

A LOOK at the dust under a microscope revealed dead skin cells, hair and dirt. Further tests found around 100,000 bacteria, as well as several different types of allergy-causing fungus.

The scientists also uncovered evidence of dust mites and their droppings. Most mattresses contain two million dust mites, which each produce 20 droppings a day. The mites feed on discarded skin and, because they are so light and minute, can be inhaled into a sleeping person's airways.

There was also lots of cat hair in the sample - along with the protein in it that many people are allergic to. The scientists also picked up traces of allergen from dog hairs. For each gramme of dust in the mattress there were eight microgrammes (millionths of a gramme) of the protein Der p1, which is found in dust mite droppings.

That's just below the level that can set off asthma attacks and cause asthma to develop. "Kelly needs to do something quickly, such as clean the mattress or use a barrier sheet that will prevent the allergens getting out of the mattress and into the air," says Dr Pirzad.

Unsurprisingly, having a mattress teeming with life can have serious consequences for your health.

Scientist Paul Meighan, who carried out the tests for Health Zone with Dr Pirzad, says: "We spend a third of our lives in bed and it's not good to be surrounded by all these bugs.

"People must catch things from their beds all the time but they just don't realise the cause of their complaint."

The good news for Kelly is that after her mattress underwent the diathermic heat treatment, the number of bacteria fell from 100,000 to just 1,000 per gramme. The fungi were completely eliminated and the treatment also neutralised the dust mites and their droppings.

After all that, Kelly can now sleep in peaceful solitude. ServiceMaster Environmental Protection Services.

Tel: 0116 236 4646 or visit

Acaris Healthcare Solutions. Tel: 01223 496 106 or visit

Tempur UK Ltd. Tel: 0800 616 135.

What we found lurking in Kelly's bed

Micrococcus Small but relatively harmless bacteria, found on skin shed during the night, which probably means they came from Kelly herself.

Staphylococcus Can cause throat infections and ulcers if you are run down. Also found on skin, either from Kelly or even one of the bed's previous owners!

Enterococcus Bacteria that can cause diarrhoea and infections in newborn babies. They are found in saliva dribbled during the night.

Pseudomonads Found in dirty water and soil, can infect wounds and cause pneumonia. They may have come from water spilled on the bed or from Kelly sitting on the bed with wet skin or hair. BacillusT Tough, resistant to heat and radiation, it's often found in undercooked food. May have been blown in through a window. Anthrax is a type of bacillus - fortunately, it is not found in beds.

Aspergillus Biggest group of fungi. Airborne spores cause serious allergic reaction and some types can be fatal. They stick to clothes so can get on the bed if you throw your coat on there after a walk.

Penicillium "Friendly" fungus found in blue cheese. Can be passed on through contact with someone carrying it, even just by shaking hands.

Rhizopus Harmless fungus that grows as a black furry mould in bread and flour and may be present in crumbs dropped on to the bed.

Alternaria Contains proteins that can cause allergic reactions such as asthma and rhinitis. Grows as a whiteor pink furry mould on food or dampwalls, particularly bathrooms, where it could be picked up on a towel that is later placed on the bed. GeotrichumSlimy but harmless mould that grows on old cups of tea or coffee, which may spill on to the mattress during a lazy breakfast in bed. CladosporiumSlow-growing fungus, but largely harmless. Can be found on the inside of window frames, so if Kelly opened a window then touched her bed she might have passed on the fungus. Dust mitesT live off the dead skin and sweat we leave behind.iny insects which Found in carpets - especially those in modern, centrally heated home. But where they breed on the they particularly love beds, dead skin which is broken down by the other bacteria.

Der p1

Dust mites aren the biggest problem for allergy sufferers, it is their droppings, which contain this protein. Can trigger asthma, eczema and rhinitis.

Fel d1

The protein in cat hair that many people are allergic to. Passed on if a cat sits on your bed, or even if you stroke a cat and then touch your mattress.Can f1 A similar protein, this time found in dog hair. As Kelly has never lived with a dog it may have come from a previous owner of the mattress, or from Kelly stroking a friend's dog.

Coliforms Group of bacteria that can include the food poisoning bugs e-coli and salmonella - although there was no evidence of these in Kelly's bed. They are found in human waste, traces of which can get on to the mattress from clothes and skin.

Kelly's verdict: I'm horrified, I just never realised...

AFTER hearing the results, Kelly's first reaction was a resounding "Yuk!" She said: "I'm horrified. I never realised all those things were crawling about while I was asleep. I'll never have breakfast in bed again!"

Kelly admits that she has never vacuumed her mattress and, although she changes her sheets regularly, she doesn't wash the pillows or duvet as often as she should.

She doesn't open the windows when she changes the sheet, which would let dust escape, taking with it a lot of bugs and allergens. Kelly was not surprised that cat hair was found in her mattress but added: "I'm surprised that they could detect the presence of dog hair, because I've never had a dog. Maybe it got there five years ago, before I bought the mattress from my friend.

"It's quite disgusting to think how long these things stick around for."

Kelly doesn't suffer from eczema or rhinitis but was diagnosed with mild asthma when she was 20, shortly after she bought the mattress. She now wonders if there is a connection. She said: "Now that my bed's been cleaned it will be interesting to see if it makes a difference to my asthma."

Top tips for keeping the bed bugs at bay

BEFORE you give up your bed and start sleeping on the floor, you'll be relieved to hear that there's a lot you can do to banish creepy crawlies - for good.

l If you splash out on a new mattress, make sure it really is new. The National Bed Federation estimates that 3.6million beds are bought in the UK every year - but 500,000 of them are second-hand.

- It doesn't matter if pillows and bedding contain feathers or man-made fibres, just make sure they are machine washable at 60 degrees centigrade or above.

- Pillows should be cleaned at least twice a year, blankets and duvets at least once a year. The mattress and pillows should be vacuumed weekly when changing bed linen. Also vacuum floors, furniture and curtains - and open the windows so dust can escape.

- Granny knew best - air your bed every morning by turning back the sheets or duvet. Remake it in the evening.

- Don't wrap your mattress in plastic as condensation will cause mildew and rotting. Banish dust by regular cleaning.

- To keep humidity down, leave a bedroom window open when you can.

- Don't add to humidity by dusting with a wet cloth, or drying clothes or keeping plants in the bedroom.

- Anti-allergy bed covers can be a good idea but first check if your bed already has special features. Mattresses made by Tempur, for instance, are treated with an anti-bacterial agent and fitted with a cover that dust mites cannot penetrate.

- Don't let animals sleep in your bedroom.

- Keep clothing and spare bedding in closed, clean cupboards.

- Dirty bedding can aggravate asthma and cause the first allergic reaction in a baby, which can later lead to asthma. Newborn babies should never be placed on old bedding.

- To sum up, the way we live today is certainly not conducive to a bug-free bed. As John Maunder, director of the Medical Entomology Centre in Cambridge, explains: "Never have homes been so poorly ventilated, with stagnant, allergen-laden air.

"People should therefore follow the rules of bedroom hygiene laid down by our grandparents, who used them not only to keep the sleeping environment clean but also to keep it healthy."


A BREEZE: Open your windows; BAN: Make the bedroom a no-go zone; TESTING TIME: Kelly Mash suspected her mattress may not be the cleanest...but she was appalled by what the experts found; TENSE WAIT: Kelly with ServiceMaster's Don Pringle and bed-cleaning hot tent
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 15, 2001
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