Dust can be hazardous to your health. It exists both inside and outside the home. Regardless of the climate in which you live, environmental dust can exacerbate asthma symptoms and other respiratory conditions. When it builds up in the home, dust is breathed in continuously. Controlling dust exposure is important to avoid inhaling potentially infectious particles.
The United States has five major climate zones1. They range from a tropical climate in south Florida to dryer climates in the west. Temperatures and humidity vary widely in each climate zone but one thing is common to them all; dust exists and is created daily, posing a potential health hazard.
Dust is global. In fact, it actually blows around the planet. It’s a phenomenon caused by gravity, which keeps dust particles close to the earth. This past June2, dust from the Sahara, the world’s largest desert in Northern Africa, blew into Houston. That’s a trip of roughly 5,000 miles. News media in Houston warned people to stay inside because of the risk the dust posed to those with respiratory diseases.
Global dust isn’t just sand; it carries particles picked up on its travels around the globe, including mold spores, pollen from various environments and bacteria. Inhaling those particles can make it difficult for anyone to breathe, not just those with asthma or other respiratory diseases.
Dust contains large particles that remain on our skin and smaller particles that we inhale. Both can be irritating and cause different health problems. The World Meteorological Association3 (WMA) says dust poses the following health hazards:
- Smaller dust particles are inhaled and can cause asthma, allergic rhinitis and other respiratory disorders including pneumonia. If dust damages the mucous membranes in the nose and throat it may make them both more susceptible to bacterial infection.
- Larger dust particles are too big to be inhaled. Instead, they can cause irritation to the skin and eyes, causing conjunctivitis and other types of eye infections.
- Some types of dust can actually enter the bloodstream causing cardiovascular problems. This may seem unusual, but the WMA says that in 2014, exposure to dust caused approximately 400,000 deaths “by cardiopulmonary disease in the over-30 population”.
Household dust can be just as hazardous to health. It’s estimated that 90 percent of household dust4 contains at least one toxin. Some are chemicals like flame retardants, and phenols used to manufacture plastics. A study by the American Chemical Society5 (ACS) found that these hazardous materials “leach” into dust from a variety of sources inside the home including:
- Personal care products
- Household cleaning products
- Floor and wall coverings
- Fortunately, it is easy to prevent inhaling dust
As dust is inhaled, the chemicals it contains can enter the body. This can be especially hazardous for children who spend a lot of time touching objects, crawling on the floor and putting their fingers and hands in their mouths. The ACS study showed that increased contact with dust was probably the reason why higher levels of flame retardant chemicals are found in children than adults.
Fortunately, it’s easy to protect yourself from inhaling dust
If high levels of dust blow through the environment in which you live and work, wearing a mask to cover the mouth and nose can prevent inhalation of dust particles. For household dust, cleaning surfaces properly and thoroughly can prevent dust from accumulating and posing a hazard to family members.
Tips on how to clean and control dust in the house
Wash hands: Washing hands is one of the most effective ways6 to prevent the spread of infection and disease. Washing one’s hands regularly with soap and water, or hand sanitizer, will remove dust and prevent it from entering the eyes, ears, nose or mouth. (Did you know that that people touch their faces up to 4x each hour?)
Dust surfaces: Dust the surfaces in the house with a damp cloth rather than a dry one to best pick up the dust. Clean the floors with a dust mop or pad that will pick up maximum amounts of dust.
Vacuum: A good vacuum will pick up dust on the floors and floorboards. The right attachments will also help to remove dust from curtains, lampshades, venetian blinds and ceiling fans.
HVAC: When thinking about cleaning the house, don’t forget the HVAC system. Dust accumulates in the duct work over time and then is blown into the house when the system is used. A professional service can clean the HVAC system for you. HVAC cleaning should be performed at least yearly and you should change your HVAC filter at least once every 6 months.
Wash bedding: Wash sheets, blankets, comforters and bedspreads frequently. It’s best to wash sheets once a week. Blankets, comforters and bedspreads should be washed at least once a month. One trick is to place them into the dryer for about a minute if you don’t have time to wash them. The high heat tends to eliminate dust mites and can prevent dust mite allergies.
Simplify: The more objects that pile up around the house, the more dust can accumulate. Remove piles of magazines, newspapers and boxes. Eliminate decorative items that have collected around the house and keep only an important few. (Easier said than done!)
The severity of illnesses caused by dust particles varies widely across the globe. Climate, home construction and education impact how people are able to protect themselves from it. It pays for everyone to be knowledgeable about dust and avoid inhaling its illness-causing particles.