What's in Your Dust Bunnies?

CC BY 2.0. Pet bunny beside my desk/ Lloyd Alter

Enough toxic stuff that you should get out your vacuum cleaner.

I am looking at this dust bunny right now, thinking it is unsightly, but not particularly worried about what appears to be a pile of dog hair. But according to the Hayward Score people, it is a lot more than that: "What we call 'dust' is really a complex combination of particulates, dander, pollen, fibers, heavy metals, chemicals, mold spores, and more."

They point to Consumer Product Chemicals in Indoor Dust: A Quantitative Meta-analysis of U.S. Studies, which found:

Indoor dust is a reservoir for commercial consumer product chemicals, including many compounds with known or suspected health effects. However, most dust exposure studies measure few chemicals in small samples... Our results indicate that U.S. indoor dust consistently contains chemicals from multiple classes. Phthalates occurred in the highest concentrations, followed by phenols, RFRs [flame retardants], fragrance, and PFASs [perfluoroalkyl substances]. Several phthalates and RFRs had the highest residential intakes. We also found that many chemicals in dust share hazard traits such as reproductive and endocrine toxicity.
chemicals in dust

© Susanna D. Mitro et al, Environ. Sci. Technol.2016501910661-10672

The study concluded that "the indoor environment is a haven for chemicals associated with reproductive and developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, cancer and other health effects."

The Hayward Score team has some good recommendations for reducing exposure to harmful chemicals, including:

  • Make surfaces “cleanable.” Declutter to reduce the places for dust to gather.
  • Wash your hands and your children’s hands frequently, and always before eating. Use regular soap, not anti-bacterial.
  • Regularly dust surfaces with a damp washable microfiber or electrostatic cloth.
  • Regularly clean floors with a damp washable microfiber cloth or electrostatic cloth.
  • Regularly vacuum carpets and rugs with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered vacuum.
  • Change your furnace air filter to a MERV 11 (or equivalent).
  • Purchase an air purifier with a charcoal filter.

TreeHugger Melissa Breyer also did a good list and added the obvious: "Remove your shoes before entering the home!"

Drawing room, Mrs. Alex McDougall's house, Montreal, QC, 1895 ,William Notman

Drawing room, Mrs. Alex McDougall's house, Montreal, QC, 1895 ,William Notman/Public Domain

The Hayward team would not have liked Victorian interiors, which could use some extreme decluttering. They were also full of particulates and chemicals from the gas lamps and the fireplace. But they don't have any of those chemicals that our modern homes do – and that we do have an opportunity to avoid, if we ask why these chemicals are in our homes in the first place. We can make choices that reduce our exposure to them.

  • Phthalates are chemicals used to soften vinyl, but they are also found in nail polish and personal care products. You can buy phthalate-free products; you can avoid vinyl.
  • Flame retardants are in foams and furniture; they used to be mandatory but you can avoid them by furnishing with natural materials, or searching out brands that are free of retardants.
  • Phenols are in cosmetics and lotions and can be avoided.
  • PFASs are in stain repellants, non-stick pans, and Glide dental floss, and can be avoided.

TreeHugger Melissa had a list of suggestions for keeping all these chemicals out of your home:

  • Replace older foam products and furniture, especially those made before 2005, which are more likely to contain flame retardant chemicals. Foam furniture is now widely available without added flame retardants, thanks to changes in California’s flammability standards.
  • Opt for furniture made from wood and natural fibers. (I always suggest buying vintage.)
  • Buy rugs and furniture that haven’t been pretreated with stain-repellent chemicals.
  • Avoid non-stick pans and kitchen utensils. Opt for stainless steel or cast iron.
  • Cut back on fast food and greasy takeout. These foods often come in PFC-treated wrappers.
  • Avoid scented personal care and cleaning products.
  • Don’t wear shoes inside the home and use a natural-fiber doormat.
Fridge magnet

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I feel better about my bunnies because we tend to agree with our fridge magnet, so it is better to keep this stuff out in the first place. In another post, the Hayward Score team lists 6 steps to minimize dust at home, all sensible, my favourite being:

Declutter And Tidy Up

Clutter and knicknacks are dust magnets! Remove clutter both from surfaces and floors to help minimize dust. Don’t ignore piles of clothing, toys, magazines, books or anything else, as cleaning around them won’t take care of the dust that has settled in or on them. It’s also important to keep your closets tidy. Garments and fabrics shed lots of fibers, so it’s beneficial to store things in garment bags, containers and boxes. As a bonus, decluttering your closet serves to help prevent mold growth, too.

But first, I am going to vacuum those stairs.