90% of house dust tested has toxic chemicals

Comprehensive study digs into house dust and finds harmful chemicals like phthalates and flame retardants in 90 percent or more of dust samples.

Beware the dust. Sigh.

If you’re obsessively tidy or don’t bring typical consumer products into your home, you may be off the hook here. But for the rest of us, new research has found that the seemingly innocuous powder that takes to our homes in the form of house dust is packed with hazardous chemicals coming from everyday products.

While the possibility of noxious dust bunnies comes as little surprise – it’s a topic we’ve written about before – this new study is the first comprehensive meta-analysis of toxic chemicals found in house dust. It reveals that the average American is likely exposed to an icky chaos of chemicals that come from consumer products and building materials – chemicals that have been linked to numerous health effects including cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive problems.

The new data comes from a multi-institute team of researchers, hailing from Milken Institute School of Public Health, Silent Spring Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program.

“Our study is the first comprehensive analysis of consumer product chemicals found in household dust,” says lead author Ami Zota, ScD, MS, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute SPH. “The findings suggest that people, and especially children, are exposed on a daily basis to multiple chemicals in dust that are linked to serious health problems.”

Zota and her team compiled data from 26 different peer-reviewed papers and one unpublished dataset that analyzed dust samples taken from homes in 14 states. All told, they found 45 potentially toxic chemicals that invade our homes by way of consumer and household products like vinyl flooring, personal care and cleaning products, building materials and home furnishings.

The authors say that chemicals from consumer products are released into the air and then settle into the dust. They can be inhaled and even absorbed through the skin.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • Ten harmful chemicals are found in 90 percent of the dust samples across numerous studies, including a known cancer-causing agent called TDCIPP, a flame retardant frequently found in furniture, baby products and other household items.
  • Indoor dust consistently contains four classes of harmful chemicals in particularly high amounts: Phthalates, phenols, flame retardants, and highly fluorinated chemicals (HFCs).
  • Phthalates were found in the highest concentration with a mean of 7,682 nanograms per gram of dust – an amount that was several orders of magnitude above the others. Phthalates such as DEP, DEHP, DNBP, and DIBP, are not only found at the highest concentrations in dust but are associated with many serious health hazards. In 2008 Congress banned the use of phthalates in the production of children's toys because of concerns about them, but they still run rampant in hundreds of consumer products.
  • Phenols, chemicals used in cleaning products and other household items, were the number two highest chemical class followed by flame retardants and HFCs used to make non-stick things like cookware.
Even more troubling is that many of the different chemicals are linked to similar health risks, like cancer or developmental and reproductive toxicity, and can act together to compound the problem. So that even exposure to small amounts when mixed together can amplify the effects, especially for developing infants or young children.“The number and levels of toxic and untested chemicals that are likely in every one of our living rooms was shocking to me,” says co-author Veena Singla, PhD, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Harmful chemicals used in everyday products and building materials result in widespread contamination of our homes – these dangerous chemicals should be replaced with safer alternatives,” Singla adds.

Taking the following precautions can help:
  • Avoid personal care and household products that contain potentially dangerous chemicals. (A TreeHugger mantra, of sorts. See helpful related links below.)
  • Vacuum frequently with a machine with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter. These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and can remove contaminants and other allergens that a regular vacuum would recirculate into the air. Change the filter often, and don’t forget to vacuum the stuffed furniture (get under those couch and stuffed cushions).
  • Wet mop uncarpeted floors frequently to prevent dust and dirt from accumulating (dry mopping can kick up dust).
  • When buying new furniture, check labels for stain-repellants, antimicrobial treatments, and fire retardant chemicals, which should all be avoided.
  • Wipe furniture with a damp cotton cloth. Skip synthetic sprays and wipes when you dust – they only add unwanted chemicals.
  • Caulk and seal cracks and crevices to prevent dust and dirt from accumulating in hard-to-reach places.
  • Avoid ozone air purifiers – ozone irritates lungs and does not remove dust or other airborne particles.
  • Pay special attention to places where little kids crawl, sit and play. They live closest to the floor and are exposed (and more vulnerable) to harmful dust.
“Consumers have the power to make healthier choices and protect themselves from harmful chemicals in everyday products,” says Robin Dodson, an environmental exposure scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “These things can make a real difference not only in their health but also in shifting the market toward safer products.”See more about the chemicals found in the research and the study interactive graphic at NRDC.

Tags: Chemicals | Cleaning | Diseases | Health | Toxins

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