Your Dust Bunnies Are Likely Toxic

Dust bunny
CC BY 2.0. Flickr/KimCarpenter NJ

Flickr/KimCarpenter NJ/CC BY 2.0

Do dust bunnies slowly drift across your floor like delicate dirty tumbleweeds, to settle out of sight beneath the bed? Does dust collect in the corners and perch daintily atop your baseboards? It happens to the best of us. But if you're a dust-phobe who incurs rolling eyes at your obsessive cleaning, consider yourself justified. Dust has been found to contain a potent mix of toxic chemicals that migrate from home products, roll in through open doors and windows, and hijack rides in on shoes - eventually winding up as a major component of the dreaded dust.

The distinct dust mix in any home will vary based on climate, age of the domicle and the number of people who live in it — not to mention the occupants' habits. But nearly everywhere, dust consists of some blend of shed bits of human skin, animal fur, decomposing insects, food debris, lint and fibers from clothes, bedding and other fabrics, tracked-in soil, soot, particulate matter from smoking and cooking, lead, arsenic, pesticides, and even DDT.

A groundbreaking study by the Silent Spring Institute found 66 hormone-disrupting chemicals, including flame retardants, home-use pesticides and phthalates, in household dust.

Meanwhile, an EPA study, reported in Environmental Science & Technology, provided proof that pesticides can be tracked into residences on shoes. People and pets who walk on pesticide-treated lawns can pick up pesticides like the herbicide 2,4-D, for up to a week after application. The study found that “track-in” exposures of pesticides may exceed those from pesticide residues on non-organic fresh fruits and vegetables.

It's enough to want to make a person live in a bubble. Or get religious with the Endust and Mop & Glo. But that's no answer, given that some of the most popular dusting and mopping products score so miserably in terms of toxins of their own.

So, here's a dust action plan, as devised by Environmental Working Group (EWG), to wrangle those bunnies and otherwise decimate the dust:

  • 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 cushions).
  • Wet mop uncarpeted floors frequently to prevent dust and dirt from accumulating (dry mopping can kick up dust). Buy wooden furniture or furniture filled with down, wool, polyester or cotton. These are unlikely to contain fire retardant chemicals.
  • Wipe furniture with a microfiber or 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.
  • Equip a forced-air heating or cooling system with high-quality filters and change them frequently.
  • 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 to those toxic dust bunnies.

(And to which I add the obvious: Remove your shoes before entering the home!)

For more cleaning tips from EWG, see Tips for Greener Cleaning and DIY Cleaning Guide.