Study: Household Dust Carries Chemicals That May Pose Health Risks

Sep 26, 2016

As if you need one more reason to hate household dust, science increasingly indicates it could be a hazard to your health. A recent review of research, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, finds that the vast majority of household dust contains potentially toxic chemicals.

The chemicals come into our homes in a variety of household products: phthalates and phenols in plastics and personal care products, flame retardants in furniture and clothing, non-stick coatings on pots and pans, and fragrances in cleaners and cosmetics. But they don’t stay there; they can leak out, and dust is one place they end up.   

“Household dust kind of acts like a reservoir for where contaminants in the home can find their way,” said Robin Dodson, an environmental exposure scientist at Silent Spring Institute and one of the authors of this new study. “It’s really kind of a picture, even a snapshot, of what the contamination, or pollutant, load might be in the home.”

Dust is also a possible way for those chemicals to get into our bodies. It can be directly inhaled or ingested (that’s a particular concern for children who spend a lot of time playing on the floor). Dust can also be a carrier, holding chemicals for a time and then releasing them into the air to be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Researchers have been measuring chemical levels in dust for some time. This latest report is a compilation of data from twenty six individual studies, conducted in fourteen states over the past fifteen years.

Phthalates were the most commonly found chemicals, showing up in almost 100% of dust samples. The ten most common chemicals were found in at least nine out of ten samples. The results are sobering, even for seasoned researchers.

“As a researcher, I’ve had an inkling that these chemicals are typically widespread in our homes,” said Dodson, “but nobody had really pulled that data together to try to demonstrate that.”

All of the chemicals reported in this study are considered by authorities, like the Environmental Protection Agency, to pose a risk to human health. Many have hormone-like effects, and at least one causes cancer. In some cases, the levels being found in household dust are in the range where scientists have documented health impacts. In other cases, the amounts are smaller, but Dodson says there’s still reason for concern.

“What you have to remember is that many of these chemicals have similar health end points, meaning that they can affect our bodies in similar ways,” explained Dodson. “Because many of them act in these similar ways in our bodies, you can imagine if you start adding that all up, that these small amounts may add up to amplified health risk that we wouldn’t have otherwise predicted if we were looking at one chemical at a time.”

Silent Spring Institute, where Dodson works, has developed an app with over two hundred science-based recommendations for reducing exposure to harmful chemicals in your home. The first step, Dodson says, is to scrutinize the items you buy, avoiding – as much as possible – products that contain ingredients of concern.

Reducing the amount of carpeting in the home cuts down on dust, while vacuuming with a HEPA filter and dusting with a damp cloth both help to trap dust, rather than stirring it up. Washing hands frequently – particularly before you eat – is a good way to interrupt the transfer of chemicals from the environment into your body.