Health & Wellness

How dangerous are the chemicals found in common household dust?

The dust bunnies collecting in the corners of your house may be than an eyesore: they might be a potential health hazard, a new study suggests.

A new analysis of prior research found that household dust contains many chemicals that are emitted by everyday products such as flame retardant clothing and vinyl flooring, according to the report published Wednesday in Environmental Science & Technology.

The levels of some of the chemicals are higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency screens for at toxic waste sites, said study coauthor Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

“The chemicals found at the highest levels were phthalates,” Zota said. “These are chemicals added to plastics to help make them soft. They are in vinyl flooring and blinds. Many of them are established endocrine disruptors, which means that they can interfere with our hormones.”

Some of the chemicals were extremely common. “There were three flame retardant chemicals detected in over 90 percent of the samples,” Zota said.

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Experts disagreed about the level of danger in the dust.

Milken Institute School of Public Health / Milken Institute School of Public Health
New study finds potentially hazardous chemicals in household dust.

While the findings are worrisome, it’s not clear yet how alarmed people should be, said Marsha Wills-Karp, professor and chair of the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“There is accumulating evidence that exposure to these agents might lead to disease that we are seeing in modern cities, such as obesity, asthma and autism,” Wills-Karp said. “All of those have had a pretty sharp rise over the past 30 years. The question is how strongly [are these compounds] linked to disease."

Dust expert Angela Ferro, thinks there's enough data already to be alarmed.

"Many chemicals that are in consumer products end up in the dust, as is shown in the study, and we are in contact with the dust all the time," said Ferro, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.

Children and infants who crawl and play on dusty floors — and often put their hands in their mouths — are most at risk for exposure to the chemicals, experts said.

Zota and researchers studied 26 articles from peer-reviewed journals, as well as an unpublished data set, that analyzed sample of dust vacuumed up from people’s homes. They combined the data in what is known as a meta-analysis. The team of scientists included the Natural Resource Defense Council, advocacy group the Silent Spring Institute, the Howard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the University of California, San Francisco.

They found:

  • 10 potentially hazardous chemicals were in dust samples from 90 percent of homes, including a flame retardant that has been linked with cancer, called TDCIPP.
  • Phthalates were found in the highest concentrations in the dust samples.
  • Phenols, which are chemicals used in cleaning products and other household items, were the second highest concentrations.

  • Highly fluorinated chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS, which are found in cell phones, pizza boxes and many non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant products. These chemicals have been linked to a variety of health problems, including those affecting the immune, digestive, developmental and endocrine systems.

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Until there is more research, if families want to limit exposure to the chemicals, they can cut back on the amount of plastic in their homes, Wills-Karp said.

Other suggestions from the researchers:

  • Frequent hand washing has been associated with lower flame retardant exposures even in children.

  • Dust with a damp cloth and use a wet mop.

  • Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Funding for the study was provided by the NRDC, the National Institute of Health's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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