In which I face a crisis of lifestyle

Nobody gives out Nobel prizes for housecleaning–that’s long been my motto. This week my motto got a challenge, a setback, and today you’ll find me–gasp–cleaning up!

Being a chemist can have some serious drawbacks–such as the weekly news we get from the American Chemical Society. You think politics is un-nerving? Add to that a steady dose of news about the hidden life of chemicals. This week there was an excellent, but of course scary piece about house dust. To quote author Janet Pelley“More than just dirt, house dust is a mix of sloughed-off skin cells, hair, clothing fibers, bacteria, dust mites, bits of dead bugs, soil particles, pollen, and microscopic specks of plastic. It’s our detritus and, it turns out, has a lot to reveal about our lifestyle.”

Believe it or not, scientists study dust to learn about the lives and chemical exposure of the residents of a house. Dust can hold tiny particles of the solids that make up our lives. It also contains substances that stick to the surface of these particles. Sometimes these might be things you’d expect to blow away in the wind or wash away with water. Instead, they cling to the dust. They are what chemists would call sorbed or adsorbed.

Farm house dust, for example, contains a high amount of pesticides–often cancer causing ones. These can stick to carpets and even crawl down and reside in the carpet pads. OSHA scientists have found that farm house dust contains much more pesticide residue than non-farm house dust and that most of this lurks in the entry way or the laundry room. Roundup and “agent orange” are found most prevalently. OSHA suggests that removing carpet, regular vacuuming, and keeping shoes and boots outside can cut down on the levels of pollution in farm dust.

Farm houses might have an extra shot of pesticides in their dust but all homes contain plenty of worry. The most common toxic subtance in house dust is the plasticiser DEHP. This subtance can cause hormone disruption and even affect sperm. Where does it come from? Anything vinyl and also from plastic used in food coverings. Similar plasticisers found in paint and nail polish show up in household dust as do flame retardants and beauty product residues–all of which can cause reproductive system upsets. If the reproductive concerns don’t worry you consider this–the flame retardants have been implicated in weight gain.

If you live in Iowa there is even more lurking in dust as our all too common radon decays to lead and can be left in the dust.

Sadly, even cleaning products themselves are found in dust. Some of these can create a pleasant foamy cleaning power but are reproductive disruptors as well. It might be best to use these sparingly and stick to the old vinegar and baking soda.

I’m a lax housekeeper but I’m off to dust because to paraphrase Neal Young “Dust never sleeps.”

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