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Revenge of the toxic dust bunnies

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dust bunnies aren't just the visible reminder than we've (once again) waited far too long to clean house. They can also be allergenic and they contain toxic chemicals.

Now that's a more compelling reason to clean than impressing the guests.

Why is your household dust 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. It's 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:

  1. Products inside your house "shed" chemicals over time -- furniture, electronics, shoes, plastics, fabrics and food, among other things.
  2. 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 can toxic dust affect your family? When you're 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. We've since learned that it's 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 child's development can damage reproductive systems and cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and hearing, as well as changes in behavior. Read EWG's 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 you're 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.

How can you remove dust safely and effectively? Careful cleaning is a simple way to get rid of toxic dust. Here's 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 don't 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 don't 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 you're dust sensitive, consider asking someone else to do the dusty cleaning.

Create dust that's 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 -- they're likely to contain PBDEs. Replace anything with a ripped cover or foam that is misshapen and breaking down. If you can't 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 chair cushions.
  • 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, and Toshiba.
  • 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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