The World of Dust Is More Than Just Cleaning
Household dust on table top

The Facinating World of Dust

This is the first post in the series produced by Clean Cleaner. In this series we’re writing about topics related to cleaning (we are a cleaning company after all) that people wouldn’t necessarily read about under normal circumstances. We’re collecting all the relevant information on a topic into one article that’s easy to read and, hopefully, you’ll learn something new along the way. We certainly have.  For this article we’re concentrating on household dust.  Have you ever taken the time to think about what dust actually is? 

No, nor had we, so we thought that this was as good a topic to start with as any.  What we discovered along the way was really interesting.  We’ll let you know what exactly dust is, whether you should be concerned, and even whether you should be pleased with your miniature tumbleweeds.  Dust seems to be everywhere, we’d even go so far as to say that it’s inescapable.  It doesn’t matter how much you clean, it still clings to surfaces with a vengeance.  In the words of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 'We are stardust' may well be correct in a Cosmic sense, but everyday dust that you and I encounter originates a little closer to home.

What is dust?

Dust can be just about anything.  Your personal pick and mix.  Each time you walk in from the outside you’re bringing with you bits of the world, and everything within your home will itself shed ever so slightly, contributing furthermore.

It’s an accumulation of particles from the air that have been swept in from various different environments.  This includes soil and general dirt from the outside or pollen, but also human habitation debris such as animal hair, paper and textile fibres, and human skin cells (As far as our research has shown, dust being made of 90% dead skin cells is a bit of an urban myth. They usually get washed away in the shower or bath).  If you’re really lucky you might pick up some microscopic meteoritic rock along the way.

In a study entitled 'The ecology of microscopic life in household dust' they investigated the bacterial and fungal communities in approximately 1,200 homes in the continental US and concluded bacterial communities to be more diverse than fungal communities.

It’s interesting to note that most of the fungi found inside originated from outside, and that predicting the makeup of the communities of fungi was reasonably easy - where you live determines which fungi are found in your dust.

Bacterial communities correlated with the number of occupants in a home and the ratio of males:females within the home. Additionally, pets influenced the bacteria too - who and what you live with determines the bacteria in your dust.

The concentration of nicotine in household dust correlated with the number of cigarettes that a home reportedly smoked. Where no smoking was reported, the median concentration of nicotine was 11.7ng/mg (which is striking in itself) compared to 43.4ng/mg in smoking homes.

3d illustration of common dust mite 300 225These are friends you won't find on Facebook

Is dust dangerous?

Dust can be hazardous to human health but it depends on what exactly the dust contains and in what concentrations.

Dust mites and humans go hand-in-hand. Wherever we live, they live. Dust mites are extremely small arachnids whose primary food source is human skin cells, and thus can be found within all dust aggregations as well as clothes and bed linen. Mercifully, they don’t live on living people.

As with all living things, after food has been eaten, waste must be excreted (approximately 20 times per day for dust mites) and many people with asthma and eczema have been documented to have allergies to dust mite faeces. More specifically, proteins within their droppings which can remain allergens long after the mites have died. The prevalence of sensitivity to dust mite allergen is estimated to be between 65-130 million people worldwide, and may be up to 50% of the asthma-suffering population.

Tobacco smoke is a source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a carcinogenic compound, in settled household dust. Samples of dust were collected from 132 homes in urban areas of California; homes of smokers were significantly more likely to contain PAHs than non-smoker homes.

Dust from markets and street vendors contains most heavy metals and can potentially have negative health implications upon exposure. Dust from areas with high-density traffic tested positive for most heavy metals, whereas fish markets saw copper, lead, and zinc. This contrasts with rural areas, which were not contaminated. Interestingly, fish market worker’s mental health could be affected by the pollutants as depression levels were reportedly higher than with other market workers.Flame retardants are the chemicals that many materials (plastics, soft furnishings, electrical and electronic equipment, and insulation) are treated with to reduce the risk of combustion, but they are known to build up to dangerous levels in the household when left unchecked.

Flame retardants are surely essential in the modern world, and in their intended form do more good than harm. However, a report examined 16 Californian homes and found that 8 of them had at least 41 out of 62 flame retardants tested for in their dust. These chemicals include carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and chemicals with unknown safety profiles. 

How can the effects be reduced?

Prevention is better than cure, and simple measures such as buying a heavy duty door mat or removing your shoes outside your house can halt dust formation before it has even begun.To reduce the effects dust has on the body, the best way is to clean your home or office space regularly. Be mindful that cleaning dust will inevitably cause some of it to become airborne, and it may be necessary to wear respiratory equipment, especially if you already suffer from asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Vacuuming regularly will help pick up excess dust, especially vacuums with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. All vacuum cleaners will spit out some of the dust and bacteria that they consume, so make sure that you have a new one to minimise the damage. Make sure you vacuum under all the furniture, particularly if you have allergies. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there!

Cleaning surfaces from top to bottom will also help capture dust that initially escapes your unrelenting grasps. Many modern cleaning products are developed so that dust cannot escape once they’ve come into contact, but using a damp cloth is a good alternative.Hardwood flooring reduces dust build up because it removes a hiding place for dust to cling to, and prevents the release of even more fibres from the carpet itself, further adding to your dusty problems.

To reduce flame retardant accumulation, repair any ripped furniture that uses polyurethane foam filling as the chemicals are added to the stuffing. You could even consider replacing your furniture with naturally fire-resistant materials that don’t need to be treated.It’s more effective to tackle multiple allergens at once than to target specific allergens, according to this paper.

vacuuming dust under sofa 300 225vacuuming dust beneath furniture

Is it all bad?

The hygiene hypothesis states that children who are not exposed to pathogens and infectious microorganisms may have an increased risk of developing allergic diseases in adulthood, through a lack of immune system development.

A study looked at the relationship between gut microbiota diversity and living conditions in mice. Three groups of mice were reared in different conditions based on their sanitation levels, with all other variables (age, diet, gender, physiological status, and original gut microbiota) remaining the same. One group was raised in a specific pathogen-free animal room (SPF), another in a general animal room (XZ), and the last in a farmhouse room (JD). Groups XZ and JD supported significantly more diverse communities of gut microbiota than group SPF. This led the researchers to conclude that “...exposure to soil, house dust and decaying plant material enhances gut microbial diversity and innate immunity. Our results seem to provide new evidence supporting the hygiene hypothesis.”


So what have we found out on this voyage of discovery? Dust is composed of many things, both natural and man-made.  Fungal communities are predictable based on the geography and location of your home, which contrasted with bacterial communities which are more closely associated with its occupants.

We didn’t realise that chemical compounds would be part of dust. In this blog post, we touched on nicotine, PAHs, and flame retardants but there were many more including the element radon which has been linked to lung cancer.Dust-associated allergies cannot be cured, simply because it’s impossible to remove all traces of its constituents. You can reduce the effects by preventative measures, such as taking your shoes off outside the house.

Consider vacuuming regularly with new appliances that are fitted with HEPA filters and you could even wear personal protective equipment for when dust becomes airborne upon cleaning.

There is certainly a balancing act that needs to be appreciated too. People, more specifically children, need to be exposed to pathogens in order to build up immunity to them. Dust seems to be one area where this achieved.It turns out that dust is more compelling than it’s given credit for, at least from the general public’s viewpoint. We certainly didn’t expect to get almost four pages worth of writing out of it but that goes to show, if you delve deep enough, everything becomes interesting.


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