How Dangerous Is Household Dust?

I was alarmed to hear that there are all kinds of harmful chemicals in household dust. Can you tell me what they are and what kind of health damage they can do?

– December 27, 2016

You’re referring to findings from an investigation conducted by researchers from 5 institutions, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Focusing on peer-reviewed medical literature published since 2000, they analyzed the results of 26 studies that investigated chemicals from current consumer products found in U.S. indoor dust. They found that typical household dust contains an average of 45 chemicals. Ten potentially harmful compounds were found in 90 percent of all the samples studied. The authors described house dust as a “parking lot for chemicals in the home” and warned that we inhale them and also transfer them to our food or mouth with our hands.

The investigators warned that young children are at higher risk than adults for exposure to these chemicals because they crawl or play on the floor and put their hands in their mouth. They’re also more vulnerable to harmful health effects of toxins because their bodies and brains are still developing.

The chemicals identified came from television sets, furniture, beauty and cleaning products and flooring materials. Here’s a rundown of some that can cause health problems:

  • Phthalates: Used to make plastic softer and more flexible, especially in vinyl flooring, vinyl blinds, and food packaging. Personal care products and fragranced products may also contain these chemicals, which may disturb reproductive development and cause hormone disruption.
  • Environmental Phenols: These are used as preservatives in shampoos, lotions, cosmetics as well as in reusable water bottles and detergents. They are also associated with reproductive system toxicity and hormone disruption.
  • Flame retardants: Used in furniture, baby products, electronics, and building insulation. They may cause reproductive and nervous system toxicity and hormone disruption.
  • Fragrances: Found in cleaning products, personal care products, perfumes, candles and air fresheners. Their health effects are unknown. 

The researchers said you could reduce your exposure to the chemicals in dust by washing your hands and your children’s hands frequently – always before eating. They advise using plain soap and water and avoiding fragranced and antibacterial soaps. In addition, they suggest dusting with a damp cloth, regularly going over floors with a wet mop and using a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) filter.

In addition, there is a free smartphone app called Detox Me available from the Silent Spring Institute, one of the study participants. The app provides research-based tips on how to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals at home and at work and enables you to track your progress.

In collaboration with teams from NRDC and Silent Spring, researchers from George Washington University, Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco participated in the investigation.

Andrew Weil, M.D.


Veena Singla and Ami Zota et al, “Consumer Product Chemicals in Indoor Dust: A Quantitative Meta-analysis of U.S. Studies.” Environmental Science and Technology, September 14, 2016, DOI:10.1021/acs.est.6b02023

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