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Used mattresses...Sleeping at what risk?

BY: Della Russel Ocloo
Some confiscated used mattresses that were recently destroyed by the Tema Command of the Customs Division of the Ghana Revenue Authority.

Do you know that used mattresses can contain as many as ten million microscopic bugs? Do you also know that sleeping on too-old a mattress can pose serious health complications from dust mites that accumulate in them?

Do you also know that majority of used mattresses imported into Ghana are discarded from mortuaries, prisons, hospitals, the aged homes, clinics, hotels and hospice (a facility for terminally ill people) in the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK) and other European countries?

While mattresses have eight to ten years lifespan and ought to be discarded, they seem to enjoy extended lifespan in Ghana and other parts of Africa.

These mattresses are often gathered from dumping sites in Europe, imported into Africa and sold on the open market.

A research by the Ohio State University, Department of Entomology, states that dust mites accumulated in old mattresses could cause allergic reactions such as sneezing, runny noses, itchiness, watery eyes, coughing and sinus pressure.

“It gets worse if you have asthma, which can be exacerbated by dust mites, thus you could be at risk of difficulty in breathing, chest tightness, or even trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath,” the research highlighted.

Dust mites are microscopic creatures that reside in mattresses, pillows, beds and carpets and feed mainly on the skin. Dust mites prefer to be indoors, where they can get plenty of food like mould spores and dead skin cells from people and pets.

Used and discarded mattresses could equally contain substantial amounts of bedbugs which can cause skin rashes.

Heavy importation

In Ghana and other parts of Africa, items from Europe are considered to be of good quality. The low purchasing power of majority of people in the country has equally given a boost to the trading of used and discarded mattresses.

Not only do they come cheaper in prices, but are also durable, according to Nana Esi Adade, who was seen buying a used mattress at the Meridian enclave at Tema Community One.  

Hotels and guest house owners are also not left out, as they depend heavily on used mattresses in running their businesses.

Whereas patronage of used and discarded mattresses is a profit-making venture in Ghana and other parts of the sub-region, the case is different in South Africa, which does not allow the importation of used and discarded mattresses into that country.

In many instances, people engaged in the importation of used mattresses in Ghana do not pay any form of direct tax to the government, since they only import, retail to individual traders, take their monies and leave the country.

In spite of a Legislative Instrument (LI 1586) of 1994 banning the importation of used mattresses, and other used products such as panties, undergarments, handkerchiefs, brassieres and air-conditioners the importation has grown in leaps, as holidaymakers and business people have identified the lucrative nature of importing and retailing used mattresses.

On a daily basis, container loads of used mattresses arrive at the Tema Port with owners presenting documentations on the consignments for clearance.

Officials of the Customs Division of the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) at the Tema Port say while the importation of brand new mattresses were allowed by law, importers conscious of that have adopted strategies where they thoroughly clean and retag used mattresses to make them appear as new to outwit officials.

“These mattresses are sometimes neatly wrapped in polythene sheets with newly printed tags with manufacturing date inscription boldly displayed on them.

This is done to make the mattresses appear new so they can be cleared,” Chief Revenue Officer in charge of the State Warehouse at the Tema Port, Alhaji Malik Alhassan Mahama, told the Daily Graphic.

Where they are sourced from 

In most cases, they are given out free of charge to people willing to export them out of Europe due to its non-degradable nature, which makes it very expensive to destroy.

Conscious of environmental breaches, officials would willingly provide rebate schemes in respect of freight cost and remuneration for people exporting them out of the US, where these items are classified as risk to health.

Alhaji Malik stressed that while the importers often made attempts to thoroughly clean the used mattresses, there were often visible signs of stains on portions that made them appear worn out.

With Ebola lurking in neighbouring West African countries, the continuous importation of used mattresses could pose serious health risks to the general public.

What if people who had previously slept on these mattresses had suffered serious skin complications and infectious diseases?

Safety

According to Alhaji Malik, the division cannot guarantee the safety of these mattresses, hence the need to confiscate them for destruction in line with the provisions contained in the LI 1586.

“One mattress infected with Ebola can cause havoc if it gets into the public domain unknowingly. We are guided by the need to ensure the protection of public safety, hence the need to reinforce the legislation to ensure the ban on such items is effective at the country’s entry points,” Alhaji Malik reiterated.

He said officials were sometimes left baffled at attempts by importers to emotionally blackmail them by paying for clearance duties and subsequently breaking down in tears pleading for the release of the consignments, fully aware of the consequences of bringing such items into the country.

“We have had instances where people come to you in tears, pleading that the mattresses were for personal use and not for commercial purposes. While some of these excuses may be genuine, as an enforcer of the law, we cannot compromise,” Alhaji Malik intimated.

Compliance

In spite of the legislation detailing the ban being a decade old, it still remains relatively unknown to the general public, business owners and the importing public.

Many people have argued that they only hear of such existing regulation after they had already spent large sums of money on procurement and freight.

A livid importer told the Daily Graphic at the Golden Jubilee Terminal that he was unaware of such provisions.

He wondered why officials at the Customs duty pay point accepted payment on the consignment when he presented his declaration forms which had an itemised list of his consignment.

He also queried the procedure for distinguishing used mattresses from new ones.

But Alhaji Malik discounted the claims, saying many importers and cargo owners often labelled the items as new, knowing very well such were acceptable for clearance.

According to him, they relied on the expertise of local producers such as Ashfoam and Latex Foam to help in the segmentation of the mattresses into used and new.

Implications for the local industry

There is no denying the fact that the local industry continues to be at the mercy of heavy importation of used mattresses.

While there are no readily available statistics on the tonnage of used mattresses in the country owing to the illegal importation, local producers have had to grapple with low sales.

According to officials of Latex Foam, not only was the heavy importation having a negative effect on their sales and profitability, but that has also over time led to a reduction in their workforce due to reduced production volumes.

A management member wondered why laws on narcotics were implemented strictly to ensure compliance, yet there was laxity in the implementation of laws on the importation of used and discarded items.

While lauding the Customs Division for mounting a vigorous campaign to confiscate and burn these items, the local producers called for strict enforcement of the provisions of the legislation.

“Once a law prohibits these activities, there ought not to be compromises in their implementation. A strict enforcement of the law would go a long way to protect health and safety,” the official pointed out.