Sleep, Health and Wellbeing: Changing Times, Promising Developments and Issues of Concern

            Human beings require certain things for survival such as food, air, and sleep. While we focus on the first two, sleeping has been pushed down on the list of priorities. However, thanks to research and development in the mattress industry, it has re-gained steam both in the market and in the minds of consumers. While questions such as ‘what mattress to buy?’ continuing to occupy people’s minds, the increased levels of awareness fuel further growth in the field. This is a positive trend for the industry and the economies it creates because firms are forced to respond to such customer demand and invest into new technologies, materials, and designs, in their pursuits of having larger market shares and higher profitability, creating a win-win situation for both sides.

            There are many factors associated with the mentioned market growth and increasing customer demand but ignorance is presumably the most obvious one. Thanks to efforts by individuals such as Arianna Huffington, the founder of Huffington Post, the issue returned to the spotlight in a cultural environment where politicians such as Donald Trump and as well as businessmen such as Virgin’s Richard Branson openly advocate minimal sleeping hours for success. With the recent unraveling of health complications associated with sleep deprivation, consumers began to seek better products, leading to a 4.5% increase in the sales of mattresses and bed foundations in 2015, with the revenues also increasing by 6.8%. Terry Cralle, a sleep clinician from Virginia points out that healthy sleep contributes not only to physiological but also psychological health, noting that almost every patient he treats has been asking him questions about mattresses. Similarly, ‘The Better Sleep Council (BSC)’ has also taken notice of such health related complications to publicly announce that consumers should be replacing their mattresses every five to seven years, referring to the institution’s own study findings that reveal 9% of Americans believe there is a link between mattress quality and good health. Recent innovations such as memory foam mattresses are currently breaking ground in the markets, proving that the newly emerging entrepreneur interest in the issue will yield even better results for the industry and its customers in the years to come.   

            In every market, there are externalities that create inefficiencies and the mattresses market is no exception. Recently, ‘The Furniture Research Association (FIRA)’ and the BBC teamed up to address the issue of ‘rogue mattresses’ by informing the public about the safety, functionality and value related problems associated with such products. The program is titled ‘Rip Off Britain’ and includes footage of Angela Rippon, the BBC correspondent and FIRA’s Director, Phil Reynolds discussing the importance of buying mattresses from recognized dealers as opposed to individual sellers. Usually, such sellers not only market low quality products but also offer no receipts, making it impossible for the customer to pursue further legal action when confronted by a problem. In conjunction with the ‘National Bed Federation’, FIRA carried out several tests on a rogue mattress provided by a dissatisfied customer to find out that although the mattress did indeed pass the standard flammability tests, the foam used in them was not completely fire-retardant and could easily burn in the case of a nearby fire. Reynolds also pointed out that there still exist traders who sell low quality products from the back of their vans which have non-robust springs and no foam surrounding them, leading to issues such as collapsing. He also thanked BBC for taking an interest in the issue, stating that such support will help unaware consumers understand the shortcomings of such products and lead them to reconsider their decisions when buying from unauthorized sellers.

            Similarly, an essay published in ‘The American Journal of Public Health’ addressed the dangers of inflatable beds, which have become popular among low-income families. The study found out that the uneven, soft, and impermeable surfaces of such beds create dangers for babies and can even “increase the risk of sudden infant death.” Jennifer Doering of the University of Wisconsin’s Public Health Department believes that such products have already become a substitute for pricey alternatives among the poorer sects of the American society and consequently, infant deaths seem to be affecting racial and ethnic minorities more than Caucasian populations, constituting a direct correlation between the two variables. Doering also co-authored a report in 2015, which found out that 108 infants died between the years 2004 and 2015 due to complications arising from sleeping on an air mattress in 24 different US states. As a result, ‘The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)’ issued a warning to parents, urging them to not put their infants under the age of 15 months to sleep on inflatable air mattresses. Matthew Whalen of Intex, the largest inflatable mattress producer firm in the world, points out that people have already begun to consider these products as actual sleep solutions as opposed to substitutes, thanks to prices going as low as $20. According to him, Intex has already begun to print safety labels on the company’s air mattresses but for Doering and other concerned professionals, the given precautions are not sufficient. Such individuals believe that without institutions such as ‘The American Academy of Pediatrics’ actively indulging into information campaigns, the situation will not change and mortality rates will not drop.

            Unfortunately, the market is being obstructed by a powerful force that confuses and leads customers to faulty products and shady business deals: sketchy mattress review websites. Such websites are at large unregulated and the opinions/reviews they present to their visitors belong to regular people with minimal-to-no professional education on mattresses. Much like a crooked salesperson would attract attention in any way possible, these websites utilize Google’s powerful marketing tools to attract customer attention and make money through affiliate fees and commissions. Such review websites also do not disclose the amount and source of their commissions, raising suspicion regarding their affiliations with the market and its competitors. Due to the very nature of affiliate marketing, even the lesser known and unreliable websites make their way to the top of Google’s search results lists, making it possible for some ill-intended websites to falsely market products with respect to origin and functionality. When such websites negotiate with shady dealers on ‘pay-per-sale’ schemes that make them literally thousands of dollars every month, they lose complete interest in ethical issues, exchanging them for higher popularity and customer demand. Since more sales lead to higher rankings, the issue turns into a vicious cycle that makes it virtually impossible for the unsuspecting customer to locate reliable review websites and shop securely. Such a system also grants these websites the capability to play personal favors on their partners in the production business of mattresses, which further complicates the relations between producers and customers.

            College life is a quite different experience than regular living, and healthy sleep is one of the most important aspects of it, helping students deal with academic and social pressures. Recently, Huffington Post’s Joan Blades contacted Professor Graham Peaslee at Hope College to test the mattress toppers provided by the school her daughter would be attending soon with respect to toxic chemicals and other potentially harmful materials. Shockingly, the tests revealed that both the egg crates and memory foam toppers contained toxic flame-retardants such as bromine, which is a persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic chemical found in ‘Firemaster 550’, a standard solution used by producers in the industry. The solution has also been associated with obesity and anxiety in test animals as well as decreased sperm count in men, along with neurotoxicity and cardiovascular, endocrine and metabolic complications. Although flame-retardants are utile against risks of fire, several reports have surfaced in recent years, linking them to cancer, reproductive disorders and brain damage in children. The public outrage led Kaiser, America’s largest health management nonprofit organization to stop buying products treated with such chemicals in the name of eliminating “the unnecessary and harmful chemicals” in the environment that might pose health risks to humans. The issue is especially alarming for college campuses where safety regulations enforce school administrations to use such chemicals in virtually every furniture they place in dormitories. Blades has hope however, pointing out that such chemicals were used in children’s sleepwear in the 1970’s as well, but were banned later on due to public pressure based on scientific findings of clinical tests carried out on such products.         

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