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fibers not fiberglass (C) Daniel Friedman Chemical Contaminants in Building or House Dust
Hazards, research, advice

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Chemical contaminants & hazards in some house dust or building dust:

This article series describes the common as well as less-common constituents of house dust and typical office building dust. We also describe particles that may indicate indoor air quality concerns, hazardous conditions, or other building conditions that may be detected or perhaps simply suggested by the presence of certain particles in air, in settled building dust, or in vacuum-cleaner collected or clothes dryer-collected dust and lint.



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Chemical Contaminants May be Carried by House Dust

fibers not fiberglass (C) Daniel Friedman Typical components of house dust and typical office building dust are dominated by fabric fibers and skin cells. Common too are lower levels of dust mite fecals, insect fragments, and air-delivered pollen and mold, though the levels of these varies seasonally and by changes in the indoor environment such as in humidity.

Watch out: We do not recommend that every building be screened for mold nor other problem particles. But when conditions warrant, further investigation is appropriate.

Also see MOLD / ENVIRONMENTAL EXPERT, HIRE ? for help in deciding if it's appropriate to bring in a professional to assess indoor health risks.

Separately in some articles we cite below, indoor air quality may be affected by gases mixed into indoor air, such as formaldehyde, but less obvious are potentially harmful chemicals or particles borne in, on, or attached to particles of ordinary house dust. Fergusson et al (1986) point out that heavy metals may also be present in dust samples.

Many researchers have cited endocrine disruptors, arsenic, BPA, PBDEs, and other contaminants that may be present at harmful levels in the dust of some buildings. Recent news articles in the popular media such as the New York Times (2017) as well as scholarly-research articles (Stapleton 2005) describe a higher level of possible risk of chemical contaminants carried into house dust than many had previously understood.

Watch out: usually the dominant constituents of house dust (fabric fibers, skin cells) do not pose a health hazard to humans.

However some substances that can occur at high levels in the dust of some buildings such as lead can be dangerous, and it is possible that lower levels of some particles such as PBDEs may be unsafe, particularly for populations at extra risk, such as pregnant women, the elderly, children (Gevao 2006), people who are immune-impaired, asthmatics.

There may be other less-expected contaminants in building dust. For example, following a sewage flood or septic back-up in a building, both bacterial and viral hazards may be attached to common house dust particles. See SEWAGE CONTAMINANTS.

List of Harmful Chemicals, Metals or other Contaminants Present in Some Building Dust

Dog dander allergens (C) Daniel FriedmanThe photo of dark pink fragments shown here illustrates a mix of skin cells (larger fragments) and dog dander heavily stained with acid fuchsin and examined in our forensic laboratory. Normally these human skin and animal dander particles are hyaline (colorless). Skin cells and where pets are present, pet dander are entirely common in buildings. They are not harmful, though high levels of pet hair and pet dander can be a problem for asthmatics or for people with allergies.

Examples of more dangerous pathogens and chemicals that might contaminate or become attached to more-ordinary house dust particles (such as fabric fibers, soil particles, even skin cells in house dust) include the following:

What to Do about Indoor Dust Hazards

For normal households, ordinary damp wiping, mopping, and vacuuming can reduce the level of indoor dust. A better approach to reducing the level of indoor dust (in our OPIONION) is to permanently get rid of wall-to-wall carpets and to minimize the use of heavy-upholstered furnishings.

Where there is a specific problem particle, chemical, or contaminant in a building and that is showing up in building dust, the steps to correct the problem must start by identifying the problem source and then clean, cover, or remove it.

For example if there is a concern for high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), then the fabrics, carpets, or other soft goods that were treated with fire retardant need to be identified and perhaps removed.

Quite different, a problem with lead dust will usually be traced to lead paint on window sashes, trim, or in older buildings, even on walls and ceilings. Lead abatement procedures typically require removal of old lead paint using safe procedures and re-coating of surfaces. Heavy metals from a sewage backup or from a home subjected to area flooding probably mean that the building was not properly cleaned after that unpleasant event.

Different still, a problem with dust mite may be related to the presence of pets or to indoor housekeeping, mouse dander to food storage, mold to building leaks.

Watch out: "magic bullet" treatments that claim to remove some types of indoor contaminants, such as use of an ozone generator can, especially if improperly applied, create new hazards. See OZONE MOLD / ODOR TREATMENT WARNINGS

Watch out: where high levels of very small particles in the few-microns range are present (such as the Aspergillus/Penicillium mold spores shown below), vacuuming with an ordinary household vacuum cleaner may actually increase the level of airborne dust. That's why we recommend use of a HEPA-rated vacuum cleaner.

Research on Chemical Contaminants in House Dust

Dust mite or other insect fecals (C) Daniel Friedman

Photo: dark cylindrical dust mite fecals and Penicillium/Aspergillus mold spores in a tape sample of settled dust in a home where a mold contamination problem was found. The mite fecals themselves may be comprised principally of mold spores but the chains of spores indicate that there was nearby active fungal growth.

Other useful citations on the ingredients of house dust are given at CONCRETE DUST & ODORS and at LEAD in AIR, EMISSIONS STANDARDS and LEAD POISONING HAZARDS GUIDE

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Continue reading at HOUSE DUST COMPONENTS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see HOUSE DUST PARTICLE PHOTOS - a photo tour of what we found in dust from a London loft.

Or see DUST SAMPLING PROCEDURE where we also discuss finding mold in indoor dust samples

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