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Dust: Not only a nuisance, but also a source of hazardous chemicals

We spend up to 90% of our time indoors – in our homes, our offices or at school. However, studies show that indoor air can be more polluted and therefore worse for our health than air outdoors, as indoor air and dust can contain a number of worrying harmful chemical pollutants.

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Image via Stromcarlson/Wikimedia

Children, particularly babies and toddlers playing on floors, are specifically  vulnerable to ingesting these pollutants through breathing in or eating dust.

Chemicals of concern include flame retardants, plasticisers and non-stick and water-proofing chemicals. Many are toxic and some are persistent (do not break down) and bioaccumulative (increase in concentration in our bodies and we do not tend to excrete them)’ there’s more information on these below.

It’s worth noting that the chemicals listed are just a selection of what is found in house dust – we are exposed to a complex cocktail of chemicals all the time, whether we like it or not.

Flame retardants

One group of chemicals routinely found in dust is flame retardants, which are used in furniture, textiles and electronics to reduce flammability. For example, a study published in 2016 found a wide range of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and organophosphate flame retardants (OPRs) in dust in Barcelona.

One group of BFRs found in this study  (and many others) is the PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers). PBDEs are known to accumulate up the food chain, and are so persistent that they are now found worldwide. They are present in food, indoor air, household dust, and in our body tissues. In animal studies, this group of chemicals have shown to disrupt the thyroid, cause neurological impairment and have been linked to some forms of cancer. Some PBDEs are banned, but others, including DecaBDE, are still in use though the EU is discussing further restrictions.

The BFR HBCD is a persistent organic pollutant (POP) and a United Nations expert committee said that “as a result of [HBCDs] long-range environmental transport, [HBCD could] lead to significant adverse human health and environmental effects, such that global action is warranted.” HBCD was added to the list of globally banned POPs under the Stockholm Convention in 2013. 2009 study looked at different ways that we’re exposed to HBCD and discovered that “house dust provided the major contribution to personal exposure via dust ingestion,” and concluded that young children are most susceptible to ingestion of flame retardants via dust.

Children may also be exposed to BFRs in dust from their classrooms, as a UK study found that levels of PBDEs and HBCDs in dust in classrooms and daycare centres were significantly higher than those in cars and offices.

OPRs have also been found in dust from cars, schools and homes in the UK, and a study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that some OPRs have human health and/or environmental properties of concern.

Even flame retardants that have been phased out can still be found in products in our homes, as they may be in long–life products like furniture. They can also re-circulate into our homes if they are recycled into new products like carpets.

Phthalates

Phthalates are another group of chemicals that are found in household dust. Many phthalates can disrupt the hormone system and are developmental and reproductive toxicants. They are commonly used in PVC products, and while some have been banned from certain uses, the debate continues on whether to ban other uses.

One study looked at migration of the phthalate DEHP from vinyl (PVC) flooring into dust at different temperatures. It was found that under some conditions DEHP migration into dust increased with temperature, so this could indicate that DEHP could be released due when using underfloor heating.

PFCs

Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) are a group of chemicals used in non stick and waterproof coatings, and they have been  found in dust in houses, offices and cars; they have also been detected in indoor air in Norway. Controls on a number of PFCs are under discussion in the EU, but they continue to be used in a wide range of products, from microwave popcorn to waterproof clothing (see Greenpeace’s Detox Outdoor campaign).

PFCs are persistent and bioaccumulative, and can be found in our blood, and in wildlife. Research has found a link between some PFCs and reduced immune response to vaccination in children, and there is evidence of associations with prostate, kidney and testicular cancer.

Action needed

Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust said:

“Most people don’t realise quite how many hazardous chemicals you can find in normal house dust.

We can reduce part of our exposures to problem chemicals by keeping our homes clean, but ultimately we need to get these chemicals out of our lives by them being banned from products in the first place.

European regulators and industry are making slow progress, but stronger – and faster – action is needed”

What you can do

  • It’s clear that dust can be a major pathway of of harmful chemicals transferring into our bodies, so try to keep your home well ventilated and as dust free as possible.
  • For more tips on how to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals, and how to help get their use restricted, see CHEM Trust’s Take Action pages.