Study Finds Harmful Compounds in Household Dust

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A new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found “shocking” levels of harmful chemicals in common household dust collected across the United States.

Products we use never really stay put: Particles from our hairspray and oven cleaner drift through the air and accumulate in the specks of dust hiding under the bed and on the windowsills. When we inhale, we take some of that dust, and thus some of those chemicals, into our body. Consequently, determining just how common those chemicals are is a pretty important question. Yet until now, most studies on the subject have looked at small samples or considered only a handful of chemicals.

So a team of public health researchers from five institutions (George Washington University, the Silent Spring Institute, the National Resource Defense Council, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the University of California, San Francisco) decided to take a look at the bigger picture. They compared the results of 27 studies on household dust collected in 14 U.S. states.

The news was not good. The team’s meta-analysis of vacuumed-up dust revealed 45 different potentially harmful chemicals, all of which came from consumer products like vinyl flooring, toiletries, cleaning products, building materials, and furniture. Ten of the chemicals, including a carcinogenic flame retardant, were present in 90 percent of all samples.

Some classes of chemicals were more prevalent than others. Compounds called phthalates, which are commonly added to perfume, lotion, nail polish, shower curtains, plastic wrap, and vinyl siding, were found in significantly higher concentrations than any other chemicals. The phthalates DEP, DEHP, DNBP, and DIBP are all known health hazards and can interfere with the body’s hormones and respiratory system.

“The number and levels of toxic and untested chemicals that are likely in every one of our living rooms was shocking to me,” co-author Veena Singla, a staff scientist at the National Resource Defense Council, said in a press statement. "Harmful chemicals used in everyday products and building materials result in widespread contamination of our homes.”

Still, let's not freak out. While the chemicals were certainly varied and present, nobody is saying that your dust bunnies are trying to kill you. We are not in imminent danger of dropping dead from dust. And we’re not completely helpless. There are a number of things you can do to reduce your exposure. For starters, keep your house as dust-free as possible, and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Wash your hands. And we know it’s not easy, but try to steer clear of products containing phthalates [PDF].

"Consumers have the power to make healthier choices and protect themselves from harmful chemicals in everyday products," Robin Dodson, co-author and an environmental exposure scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, said in the statement. "These things can make a real difference not only in their health but also in shifting the market toward safer products."

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