SAN ANTONIO -- It's a sunny, mild day and Michael Paese is heading out on his road bike.
"This little hill? I'd be gasping for air right now," says Paese about what it would have been like to try to ride a bike just four months ago. "Ever since I was young, I put more miles on my bike than I do my car."
The 51-year-old avid cyclist says he is learning to live again and making a comeback from debilitating health problems that began six years ago.
"As the day went on, I became worn out -- not a lot of energy. I felt mentally foggy," says Paese about his health problems. "I started having a metabolic disorder, where my muscles didn't process energy properly."
For this former champion triathlete who owns his own bike shop and led a life full of exercise, the change was drastic.
His wife Bette Paese worried about his deteriorating health.
"[He could not] heal from scars and scratches, [or] bumps and bruises. Then [he'd get] to a point where all he [did was] sleep, and that is so not my husband," says Bette.
She never told him that she thought he would die.
"This last year, I did think that. It got to the point he was just so sick, and he wasn't getting better," she says near tears.
With Bette's support, Paese saw dozens of doctors all over the country. None could figure out the cause of his illness — until two months ago.
"My wife tells me a crazy story about her friend's mother who was having problems because of her bed," says Paese.
He dismissed it at the time, but by then he had also gone to see Dr. Tom Bolte, an internist in New York City who specializes in identifying the cause of illnesses other doctors can't explain.
"I told him to look at what was introduced into his life at the same time he got sick," Bette Paese said.
Then it sunk in.
"I wake up like a shot, in the middle of the night, and thought, 'I started having trouble right after I bought the bed,'" says Paese.
His health problems began shortly after he bought his memory foam mattress.
"I loved it, it was so comfy," he explained.
That's why Paese says it was so hard to believe that his bed was affecting his health.
"There's a certain amount of people who have problems with memory foam," said Dr. Bolte.
Dr. Bolte explained that memory foam is a resin made with chemicals such as Toluene Diisocyanate, described in this one Environmental Protection Administration as being extremely toxic if inhaled.
That's exactly what Dr. Bolte says Paese did every night, eight hours at a time, for years, breathing in the gasses given off by the memory foam.
"It's known documented research that any of the chemicals used to make memory foam have side effects...from carcinogenicity and allergies. There are a lot of toxicities," Bolte said.
According to Myessentia.com, which promotes organic mattresses, the list of toxic chemicals in most memory foam mattresses is a long one.
Current procedures companies follow to get their product on the market are no safety net.
"[For] the chemical market, there is no regulatory agency that says you have to prove [the product] safe. So there's no studies that are done beforehand. It's an aftermath," says Bolte.
It's a problem noted in a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that points out the EPA lacks information on the toxicity of many chemicals. In fact, last year, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin proposed passage of the Safe Chemicals Act which would force chemical companies to show their products are safe before they hit the market.
"Most of us detoxify enough that you wouldn't notice any symptoms from anything we are exposed to," said Bolte
The manufacturer of Paese's mattress gave us a statement assuring us their memory foam is tested for safety by independent labs, certified for minimal off-gases, and made without certain toxic products. And, the reality is that most people have no problems with polyurethane products which includes furniture foam, plastics and paints.
Dr. Bolte adds that Paese's health issues were likely extreme because he was prone to allergies to begin with. Paese's doctor says he had a childhood history of asthma, and that would make him more sensitive to any foreign particles in the air.
But today, Paese is doing much better. He attributes that to getting rid of his memory foam mattress and purchasing an all natural, soy mattress. He says finally discovering the root of his problems has given him his life back.
"Compared to where I was before, this is great! I feel like I can conquer the world again!" Paese exclaimed.
Memory Foam Mattress certification: Some mattress manufacturers whose products prove to have low emissions and that are made without certain toxic chemicals are certified by this organization.
Find out more about Dr. Tom Bolte from New York.
GAO Observations on Improving the Toxic Substances Control Act: Statement of John Stephenson, Director of Natural Resources and Environment
UTSA chemist Dr. Doug Frantz, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry, backs the use of memory foam. “There are many fantastic uses for polyurethane in everyday life.”
“I would agree with the responses that you are receiving that polyurethane is safe. However, it is a chemical in the truest definition of the word. In fact, water is a chemical so the perception that all chemicals are bad is an unfortunate misconception that needs to be changed in the public eye. Thus, polyurethane is a chemical but pretty much so is everything else. I would encourage you to make that distinction in this report.
Polyurethane is what we refer to as a polymer which is just a bunch of smaller chemicals connected in a chain that gives it is properties that are useful to manufacture various products. From a broader point of view, polymers are used everywhere and are found in everyday household items including plastics, paints and building materials. Most of them have been around for over a hundred years.
Polyurethane has many uses especially with making foam panels, some types of glue and carpet for example. I believe it is also a component of the synthetic fiber found in Spandex. There is probably not a day that goes by that you have not used something that contains polyurethane."