|Why your household dust is toxic and what to do
GET RID OF THAT (TOXIC) DUST
Dust bunnies arenít just unsightly and sometimes allergenic; they
contain toxic chemicals. Why? The many chemicals in and around your
homes wind up in your indoor dust when they migrate from home products
and come in through open doors and windows and on your shoes. But the
good news is itís pretty easy to keep those dust bunnies at bay -- and
reduce your familyís toxic exposures, too. Read on to learn:
- Why your household dust is toxic
- How toxic dust can affect your family
- Tips to remove dust safely and effectively
- How to create less toxic dust in the first place
Why your household dust is toxic
Every home has a little dust -- and its own unique "dust load," based
on a variety of factors like where you live, what you cook, if you
smoke, the climate, and how many people -- and animals -- live there.
Ordinary house dust is a complex mixture of generally yucky stuff -- pet
dander, fungal spores, tiny particles, soil tracked in on your feet,
carpet fibers, human hair and skin, you name it. Itís also a place where
harmful chemicals are found. One recent study by the Silent Spring
Institute identified 66 endocrine-disrupting compounds in household dust
tests, including flame retardants, home-use pesticides, and phthalates.
The chemicals in your dust originate from both inside and outside your house:
- Products inside your house "shed" chemicals over time --
furniture, electronics, shoes, plastics, fabrics and food, among other
- Outdoor pollutants enter on your shoes and through open and cracked windows and doors.
Once inside, the contaminants in indoor dust degrade more slowly (if
at all) than they would outside in the environment where moisture and
sunlight typically break them down.
One type of toxic chemical commonly found in household dust is
chemical flame retardants (aka PBDEs). As highly flammable synthetic
materials have replaced less-combustible natural materials, PBDEs have
been added to thousands of everyday products, including computers, TVs
and furniture -- among many others. EWG conducted tests in 2004
that revealed the surprising degree to which flame retardant chemicals
escape from consumer products and settle in household dust (from
degrading foam or the plastics in electronic items).
How toxic dust can affect your family
When youíre exposed to certain toxic chemicals -- even at very low
doses -- your health can be adversely affected. Dust is simply another
way for the toxic chemicals in your house to reach your body.
Young children are of special concern because their developing bodies
are more vulnerable to toxic exposures, and they ingest or inhale more
dust than adults since they -- and their toys -- spend lots of time on
or very near the floor. They also put dusty hands and toys in their
mouths often. Scientists once thought children got lead poisoning by
literally chewing on windowsills. Weíve since learned that itís actually
caused by their normal play behaviors because contaminants like lead
stick around in house dust.
In the case of fire retardants, which are commonly found in household dust,
scientists have found that exposure to minute doses of toxic PBDEs at
critical points in a childís development can damage reproductive systems
and cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and hearing, as
well as changes in behavior. Read EWGís 2004 report about toxic fire retardants in household dust.
A note about allergies. Dust is a well-known allergen
-- with or without the toxic chemicals. If youíre allergic to dust,
there are preventive steps you can take to reduce your contact with it.
The Mayo Clinic has a list of lifestyle and home remedies.
Tips to remove dust safely and effectively
Careful cleaning is a simple way to get rid of toxic dust. Hereís how:
- Vacuum frequently and use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter.
These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and will
likely remove contaminants and other allergens from your home that a
regular vacuum would recirculate into the air. Change the filter to keep
it working well, and donít forget to vacuum the stuffed furniture (get
under those couch cushions)!
- Wet mop uncarpeted floors frequently to prevent dust from
accumulating (dry mopping can kick up dust that simply resettles). Buy
wooden furniture or furniture filled with down, wool, polyester, or
cotton as these are unlikely to contain added fire retardant chemicals.
- Wipe furniture with a wet or microfiber cloth. Microfiber
cloths work well because their smaller fibers cling to the particles. If
you donít have a microfiber cloth, wet a cotton cloth -- it grabs and
holds the dust better than a dry one. Skip synthetic sprays and wipes
when you dust -- they only add unwanted chemicals.
- Caulk and seal cracks and crevices to prevent dust from accumulating in hard-to-reach places.
- Equip your forced-air heating or cooling system with high-quality filters and change them frequently to keep them working well.
- Keep electronic equipment dust-free by damp dusting it frequently; this is a common source of chemical fire retardants in dust.
- Pay special attention to places where little kids crawl, sit and play. They live closest to our floors and as a result tend to be more exposed to those toxic dust bunnies.
- If youíre dust sensitive, consider asking someone else to do the dusty cleaning.
Create dust thatís less toxic in the first place
You can reduce the amount of toxic chemicals that wind up in your
household dust by bringing fewer toxic chemicals into the house in the
first place. We suggest that you:
- Leave your shoes at the door and use a natural doormat. Shoes are a common way we bring outdoor pollutants inside.
- Inspect foam products made between 1970 and 2005 -- theyíre likely to contain PBDEs.
Replace anything with a ripped cover or foam that is misshapen and
breaking down. If you canít replace these items, try to keep the covers
intact and clean them more frequently. Some examples of household foam
products are: stuffed/upholstered furniture, nursing pillows, padded
high-chair seats, portable crib mattresses, baby changing pads, and
- Choose home electronics without PBDEs. There are
manufacturers who no longer use them in some products -- ask before you
buy and support companies that have publicly committed to going
PBDE-free, like: Acer, Apple, Eizo Nanao, LG Electronics, Lenovo,
Matsushita, Microsoft, Nokia, Phillips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony-Ericsson,
- Stick to products made with natural fibers that are naturally fire resistant and may contain fewer chemicals -- like wood furniture, cotton, down and wool.
- Clean up quickly and thoroughly when you finish a home improvement project, since these can involve dust (from sanding or drilling) and toxic products (like lead, PCBs and fire retardants).
- Consider a high efficiency "HEPA-filter" air cleaner, which may also reduce contaminants that become dust in your house.
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