Dust Bunnies: An Inside Look at their Arsenal

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of news coverage on cancer-causing arsenic found in rice and products that contain rice as an ingredient (like rice milk, baby rice cereal, or products that contain brown rice syrup).

Another source of exposure, however, are your dust bunnies!

Dust Bunnies: An Inside Look at their Arsenal

Turns out, dust is not as innocuous as they appear.  Arsenic is also present in house dust, along with a long list of other toxins: neurotoxins like lead, endocrine disruptors like phthalates, chemical flame retardants (linked to a longer list of potential health effects), and more.  In fact, the Clean Production Action detected 44 toxins and the Silent Spring Institute, who focused on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in their study, identified 66 EDCs in the household dust that they tested. Why should you care?

  • Arsenic is a potent human carcinogen and can set up children for other health problems in later life.
  • Lead is a neurotoxin.  The U.S. EPA says that there are no known levels that are found to be safe and household dust is a common source of lead exposure for some children.
  • Phthalates, an endocrine disrupting chemical, can be a significant presence in dust.  Two types of phthalates, BBP (classified as a possible human carcinogen) and DEHP (classified as a probable human carcinogen), have been detected in house dust.
  • PBDEs and TDCP are chemical flame retardants that have been either phased out or banned from certain products because of their toxicity.  However, they are still found in dust.
    • PBDEs are associated with behavioral, neurological and reproductive impairment as well as birth defects and cancer.
    • TDCP has been detected in more than 96 percent of house dust samples collected for a study in the Boston area.  In laboratory animal studies, TDCP has been associated with cancer of the liver, kidney, brain, and testes.
  • Pesticides.  As part of a 2009 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, researchers collected dust samples taken from 500 homes across the United States.  They tested for 24 different pesticides, some of which have been banned for use years earlier.  The results: Each of the 24 pesticides tested for turned up in somebody’s house.
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a.k.a. vinyl.  Pervasive throughout households as soft plastic, like vinyl shower curtains or toys, PVC is one of the most toxic materials ever created and it has been found in household dust.  PVC can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liver dysfunction.

Clearly, dust is harmful for all of us.  However, children, who spend a lot of time crawling, sitting, rolling and playing on the floor, are more vulnerable to these toxic dust bunnies.  Dust can be inhaled or ingested if they are on hands, toys and other products that are put into children's mouths.

welcome mat

Tips to reduce toxins in your dust

  • WASH HANDS FREQUENTLY!!
  • Use a door mat and require people to remove shoes before entering the home.  Sixty percent of floor dust is tracked in from outside.  According to the 1991 EPA report called the “Door Mat Study,” lead-contaminated soil from outside causes most of the lead dust inside homes built after 1978. The study also notes that wiping shoes on a mat and removing them at the door can cut lead dust by an impressive 60 percent.
  • Vacuum with a HEPA vacuum, especially one equipped with a dirt detector.  The HEPA filter helps prevent dust from recirculating into the air.
  • Wet dust with a microfiber cloth rather than dry dust.  A wet microfiber cloth also helps dust from recirculating into the air.
  • Change your air conditioning filters regularly.
  • Streamline your possessions: throw out unnecessary things; buy less; and buy healthier products. Key products to be wary of:
    • Polyurethane foam. In addition to being full of petroleum-based chemicals that may off-gas, polyurethane foam is so flammable that it is also saturated with flame retardants. These flame retardants leach from their products and escape into dust. Popular household products that contain polyurethane foam include upholstered furniture, mattresses, toys, nursing pillows, and much more.
    • Electronics. Since electronics can heat up to high temperatures and are encased in flammable plastic, flame retardants are also added to their manufacture. Dust comes from and accumulates on TVs and computers, where it can easily come onto your hands.  In our home, the floors near the most electronics contain the most amount of dust bunnies.
    • Pesticides. Chemicals used for household pest control can become a component of dust.  In addition, pesticides may be tracked in through peoples’ shoes as well as through vapors that enter through any opening—windows, doors, vents, or crevices—of your home.
    • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of over 100 different chemicals that result from combustion sources, such as cooking and smoking. In addition, they can be tracked in on shoes from contaminated yard soil or residues from garage floors.  The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that some PAHs may reasonably be expected to be carcinogens.

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