Dust Isn't Just Gross, It's Full of Scary Stuff

Time to put your Swiffer Wet to work.

by Alexandra Ossola
Jun 20 2017, 2:00pm

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Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing inquiries.

The Scenario: Yes, dusting is a drag. But your friend really takes it to an extreme—most surfaces around his home are lightly coated in the stuff, so much so that you can hardly tell his place from an antique store. Worse, you can't help but wonder what all those hours of breathing in those particles are doing to your allergies—let alone your lungs. Are you right to go all Martha Stewart on his ass, and unleash the fury of a thousand Pledge wipes?

The Reality: Your fears are at least partly justified. You might have heard that dust is 80 percent human skin. Well, mercifully, that is false. Sure, there are some skin cells in there, but dust is mostly made up of other types of organic matter, such as animal dander, fabric fibers, hair, particles from the outside air, and dirt tracked in from outside the home. The result is that gray layer you see on out-of-the-way surfaces, and also those clumps—or dust bunnies—that collect under beds and in corners.

That alone is pretty gross, but dust often contains something far more sinister than dirt. "It's actually full of toxic chemicals that come out of our everyday products and building materials," says Veena Singla, a scientist with the Natural Resource Defense Council health program. Singla, along with her collaborators, realized that while many studies had been done on dust, no one had looked at it in a comprehensive way. So they did a review study. They found that dust often contains chemicals such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), replacement flame retardants, phthalates, and fragrances. The compounds in dust can vary a bit depending on what types of products people have in their houses, but ten chemicals in particular were in 90 percent of the homes for which there was data.

How Bad It Is: Again, not great. Over time, these compounds are released from items such as vinyl flooring, paint, furniture, cleaning or personal care products, and even high chairs and strollers. They can end up in the air, but because of a quirk of their chemical properties, molecules attach themselves to particles that become dust. So if the dust gets disrupted, people can inhale it. If you touch the dust and then put your hands near your mouth, you can ingest it. That puts children in particular at risk—a 2014 study found that children have levels of flame retardant in their bodies that are on average three to five times higher than their moms.

These chemicals have been associated with harmful side effects, disrupting the hormonal and reproductive systems, and maybe contributing to the development of cancer-causing genetic mutations. It's not clear how much of what chemical in dust—or how long of an exposure—can contribute to these health conditions—there needs to be more research into just what kind of health risks these present, Singla says. But it's concerning that many of these common, toxic chemicals affect the same systems in the body. "The fact that we are being exposed all of them at once could mean that these little things can add up to a bigger risk," she says.

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What Your Friend Should Do: Duh—time to start dusting. But your friend has to do it right. The goal is to get the dust out of the house, so though feather dusters might be titillating in other ways, they'll just move the dust and toxins around and make them airborne. Instead, remove dust with a special HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) vacuum, use a wet mop on floors and a damp cloth on other surfaces.

Leave your shoes at the door so you're not tracking in dirt from outside that contains harmful substances like fertilizers or lead. And—this is an oldie but a goodie, Singla assures—wash your hands before eating so that you don't ingest any errant dust particles.

That said, Singla realizes that thinking about this too much can kind of make you go crazy. "It's one of those cases that sometimes the more you know, the less you want to know," she says. "This is the advice I give to everyone, and I apply it to myself: Do what you can, as your budget and time allows. Chemical exposure in the environment is just one aspect of what affects health," she says. In the grand scheme of things, it's probably best to give children a warm, loving home than worry about every time they put their hands in their mouths.

But if you're really fired up, you can also take political action. "Why are there toxic chemicals in our everyday products in the first place?" Singla says. "One thing that's very empowering is that when a lot of people come together to make change, it does make a difference." State governments have made steps towards banning and restricting chemicals such as flame retardants, and companies have taken the lead on eliminating some of these chemicals from products. The NRDC is making progress on a federal level, she says, but consumers can also demand change from their legislators and corporations.

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