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August 16, 2010
Volume 88, Number 33
p. 56

Mattress Scare Tactics, Squeaky-clean Videos

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Courtesy of YouTube
HOT COMPETITION Calls for video auteurs to document innovative approaches to infection prevention.
* Macromedia Flash Player 8 is required to view video.
Courtesy of YouTube
HOKEY Medical professionals from the Billings Clinic, in Montana, show the proper way to wash their hands in this video, which won an award from 3M.

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Sleep tight: No need for gas masks to become the latest fashion in sleepwear.

“Can you sleep well knowing your mattress is full of chemicals?” asks the author of “The Makings of a Mattress,” an article in the July 10 edition of the Syracuse, N.Y., Post-Standard.

To make a point about the dangers lurking in the mattresses most of us sleep on, a picture accompanying the story shows a toddler standing in her crib wearing a gas mask. “The average conventional mattress contains more TOXIC CHEMICALS than a 50-gallon oil drum,” author Gloria Wright quotes one source as saying.

However, Carmen J. Giunta, a chemistry professor at Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, thinks the subject of the mattress story is full of hot air, literally. Giunta, who brought the article to Newscripts’ attention, had a critique published in the newspaper a few days after Wright’s article first appeared. In it, he points out that not all chemicals are toxic. And he for one can sleep perfectly well knowing his mattress is full of chemicals—namely nitrogen and oxygen, the main constituents of air. “That is what takes up a large fraction of the volume of most mattresses,” he says.

But more to the article’s point, Giunta writes, is the concern that mattresses release toxic chemicals. As we sleep, the article says, conventional mattresses and their polyurethane foam components expose us and our children to a toxic stew of carcinogens and other disease-causing agents. The author’s list includes benzene, naphthalene, formaldehyde, other volatile organic compounds, and flame retardants.

Although Giunta doesn’t dismiss the fact that mattresses contain and release toxic chemicals, he asks, “To how much is the mattress user exposed? Is it enough to cause harm? Have ill effects associated with flame-retardant chemicals been observed since their use in mattresses has become widespread?” Answers to questions such as these might not be known, Giunta acknowledges, “but they must be at the heart of any rational consideration of the matter.”

When it comes to toxic chemicals, Giunta has an example of a substance to which everyone is exposed. “All of us have a very effective flame retardant in our blood,” he says. “That chemical has widespread use as an industrial cleaner; inhaling it causes many deaths each year. … That frightening material is commonly known as water.”

At their worst, media outlets sensationalize news, using scare tactics such as those in the Post-Standard article. At their best, media outlets are a marketplace where ideas play out and enrich the public’s understanding of various topics. 3M, a specialist in hand-cleaning and wound care products, is using one such outlet, the popular video-sharing website YouTube, as a forum for a contest. Medical personnel can submit original home videos showcasing innovative INFECTION PREVENTION practices to win prize money at youtube.com/3minnovation​award. Health-care-associated infections account for nearly 100,000 deaths each year, according to 3M.

The contest organizers are hoping to once again harness some of the infectious enthusiasm over coming clean that they’ve already discovered among health care professionals. Earlier this year, in cooperation with the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses, 3M ran a contest in which they asked nurses to post YouTube videos encouraging medical professionals to wash their hands properly before surgery.

It turns out that some of those health care professionals have a quirky sense of humor. Newscripts won’t say that the performances in the first contest were of Broadway quality, but it was fun to see medical personnel as washed-up actors.

The winning video, from the Billings Clinic, in Montana, features nurses and doctors in blue suits washing their hands while singing and swaying to a loopy version of the “Hokey Pokey.” The clinic got a $5,000 educational grant. The winner of the new infection prevention contest will be announced in mid-October.

Marc S. Reisch wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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