Is Dust Dangerous? Top tips for staying on top of dust.

You may not love cleaning but here’s a few good reasons why you shouldn’t let dust build up in your home.  For a start, dust contains pollutants such as lead, arsenic, DDT and allergens that can lead to a variety of health concerns such as allergies, asthma, learning difficulties and nervous system damage to name a few.  The risks to young children are even greater due to their small size, and underdeveloped organs and immune system.

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What’s in dust and where does it come from?

It’s not a glamorous topic and yet it may be a very important one, as far as the health of you and your family is concerned.  You might think of dust as just harmless bits of dirt or fluff, but what really is it?

According to Time Magazine, who interviewed dust-experts, Professors David Layton and Paloma Beamer from the University of Arizona, the specific mix of dust in any household will differ depending on climate, age of the house and the number of people who live in it, as well as their cleaning, cooking and smoking habits.

Layton and Beamer have conducted a study looking at dust from homes in the Netherlands and the US, with a view to measuring exposures to toxic substances. They say that regardless of where you live, dust everywhere contains animal fur, human skin, fabric fibres, decomposing insects, food debris, soil, soot, smoking and cooking particles. But worrying, dust also contains lead, arsenic and even DDT!

Around two thirds of household dust comes from outside – mostly from soil tracked in on the soles of your shoes, but also airborne particles entering via windows, doors and vents.  The other third comes from indoor sources, things like carpet and soft furniture fibres.

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What’s the harm in dust?

So, what’s a bit of dust between friends. Harmless right?  Wrong.  Certainly the dirt and organic matter won’t hurt anyone, but what’s concerning is the lead, arsenic and DDT concentrations that have been found in common household dust.  Plus the allergens, but more on that later…

Research such as this study and this paper suggest that biological and chemical pollutants in indoor dust and air have been associated with a range of health issues including lead poisoning, cancer, allergy, asthma, retarded growth, learning difficulties, damage to the nervous system, and sick building symptoms.

The accumulation of dust, dust mites, and tracked-in soil in old carpets, sofas, and mattresses appears to be a major source of exposure to nasty contaminants.  Shockingly, up to 1kg of dust can accumulate per square metre of carpet, according to some sources.

Allergens in dust

With 40% of the population affected, did you know that Australia and New Zealand have among the highest prevalence of allergic disorders in the developed world, and it’s on the rise?  According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), allergy is one the major factors associated with asthma, with 80% of asthmatics testing positive to an allergy.

Allergy plays an important role in asthma in two ways; by either producing inflammation in the airways or via the exposure to allergens triggering an asthma attack.

So, where does dust fit into all this?  Soils and dust can be reservoirs of organic contaminants, metals and pesticides, which tend to accumulate in them rather than in the air.  Airborne allergens on the other hand are generated from moulds, animals, plants and dust mites – these allergens thrive with the dust, moisture, skin scales, and temperature found in rugs, pillows, mattresses and on surfaces in most houses.  As you can see, whether it’s a land-borne or airborne pollutant, in the end it all gets mixed up with the dust that settles on your home’s surfaces and soft furnishings.

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Children, dust and asthma

As part of the Childhood Asthma Prevention Study (CAPS), a Sydney study into house dust mite concentrations found that 68% of participants' beds, 65% of bedroom floors and 56% of living room floors had concentrations above 10 micrograms per gram of dust, with the highest concentrations of allergen in the bed. The most significant predictor was the age of the home. They also found that beds with mattresses over two years old and with woollen or synthetic blankets or synthetic quilts had higher concentrations, as did carpeted floors over hard floors.

Studies show that mite allergen levels below the suggested threshold level (2 micrograms/g dust) are associated with mite sensitivity in children with perennial symptoms of asthma. Also that mite infestation in homes is increased with high humidity levels and poor ventilation.  Mite allergen levels were higher in homes with dampness problems, in homes with a smoker, and in homes without a basement.

Dust can be particularly bad news for children who have a higher ingestion and inhalation rate of dust, most particularly if they play on the ground and put things in their mouths.  The average child’s daily ingestion rate of dust is twice that of adults, around 0.02 - 0.2g per day and in very extreme cases, it can be as high as 10g.  The potential risks to small children relative to adults are further increased by their smaller size, higher ratio of surface area to body weight, and the stage of development of their organs, nervous system and immune system.

Solutions – how can we avoid and reduce dust? 15 top tips.

The good news is that the vast majority of dust can be removed simply by cleaning regularly.  Here are our top 15 tips to reducing dust and therefore, your exposure to pollutants and allergens in your home.

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  1. Take your shoes off before entering your home. This will immediately reduce tracked in dust and soil by 50%.
  2. Avoid smoking indoors.
  3. Keep pets outside if you can.  If you can’t, then at least keep them out of the bedroom.
  4. Opt for hard floors instead of carpets where possible, especially in the bedrooms.
  5. Clean regularly and use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. This study proved that steam vapour worked more effectively than regular vacuuming, Neem oil or benzalkonium chloride (ammonia) in reducing the dust mite population.
  6. Declutter your home.
  7. Avoid fabric furnishings (curtains, couches, tapestries, cushions and upholstery).
  8. Avoid soft toys and sheepskin products.
  9. Seal heating ducts in bedrooms.
  10. Avoid living on or near unpaved roads or driveways.
  11. Avoid combustion stoves, open fire places, and unflued gas heaters.
  12. Avoid wind pollinating plants in and around your home.
  13. Renew your mattresses after several years.
  14. Clean blankets and quilts regularly – air them in the sun at a minimum.
  15. Improve ventilation and reduce humidity in the home. Dust mites thrive in humid, stale conditions.