For most people, spring signals the perfect time to air out our homes and bring in fresh air from outside. Before the invention of the air conditioner, except for winter, windows and doors were wide open.
Does opening windows reduce dust in your home? No, open windows will not reduce dust in your home. When we open windows to allow fresh air to enter our homes, we are also welcoming everything in the air, such as pollen, chemicals, and debris. While fresh air is beneficial to our health and necessary to circulate the air in our homes, it will increase the amount of dust in your home and take its toll on allergy sufferers.
This article will focus on explaining the nature of dust and some of the ways it impacts our daily living. Also discussed are ways to help keep it under control and improve indoor air quality in the home.
The Composition of Dust
Dust contains generic components and tends to be a mix of shed human skin, animal fur, animal dander, decomposing insects, food debris, lint, and organic fibers from clothes, bedding, and other fabrics.
Particulate matter from cooking and smoking also contribute.
One will also find that tracked-in dirt, soot, lead, arsenic, and other chemicals usually located outside the home are significant components of household dust (source).
Another factor is mold, and the type of mold in household dust is known as aspergillus, which grows inside on dust or powdered food items like flour.
Pollen is a major source of allergies and asthma during the spring and summer months when the plants and trees are growing and producing flowers.
Pollen is found in seed plants and appears as a very fine, light, often green dust. Allergy symptoms are often worse on days that are windy due to pollen being so small and easily carried by the wind (source).
Most window screens will not prevent pollen from entering your home, and opening your windows on a windy day is an open invitation for pollen.
Not only does pollen float in through your open windows, but it can also enter your home on your hair, clothes, and shoes.
Take precautions such as wiping off your shoes and not wearing them in the house as well as brushing off before entering the house.
When you are dusting, use something that will catch the pollen and not send it flying into the air. Wiping with dampened microfiber cloths will grab a good deal of the dust and pollen.
Chemicals in Dust
Shed hair and skin cells contain a large number of contaminants that we have ingested or touched throughout a typical day. Shoes track in an array of contaminants such as organic pollutants, metal, endocrine disruptors, and more (source).
The Chemical Study of Dust
Scientists began to seriously study dust in the 1940s because they wanted to make sure hospital operating rooms were sterilized and free from germs or other contaminants.
In the 1970s, researchers began to study and assess house dust for the lead from paint and gasoline.
During the study, they also found carcinogenic compounds. One such compound was polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used in floor finishes for wood and electrical cables.
They also discovered phthalates used to soften vinyl flooring and plastics in the dust.
While the ban on these chemicals has been in place for years, the dust in older homes may still contain these dangerous chemicals.
Keep in mind that we cannot wholly eradicate dust, and newer particles will continually bind to older particles found in carpets, cracks, and crevices.
Hazards of Technology
While technology has made our lives invariably easier, the same technology has brought certain health risks.
For instance, if a particle of dust lands on a television or other electronic equipment, there is a very high chance that the flame retardant materials in the plastic will transfer onto the dust.
This transfer happens when the electronics are turned on and heated.
Scientists are still working to pinpoint the exact chemicals found in house dust that are putting our health at risk.
What they have discovered so far are chemicals that disrupt endocrine functioning which can lead to certain cancers, disruption of essential hormone function, and possibly cause damage to reproductive systems (source)
Scientists have developed a new strategy to break down the components in dust further. This strategy combines high-resolution mass spectrometry with data processing tools to bring out chemical identities in what is otherwise a tangled mass of data.
For now, the research into dust and the contaminants it contains continues throughout the world. Every country is working to discover the chemicals and pollutants in household dust to protect people better and improve indoor air quality.
Particle Size and Health
Particles of dust can be invisible or highly visible like “dust bunnies,” that cute name we have given to those large particles of dust.
Larger particles are heavier and tend to stay in one place. The smaller particles will fly long distances in the air and take a much longer time to settle.
The large particles are what we see as a film or layer of dust on furniture, floors, knick-knacks, and even cars.
The larger particles are the ones that tend to enter the body via the nose and mouth when you breathe.
For the most part, these particles are blown back out or swallowed and pose no harm. Smaller dust particles, when breathed in, tend to go deep into the lungs or be absorbed into the bloodstream.
As the dust particles have easy access to the body, one may consider how it will affect their health.
Some dust particles can be toxic to specific groups of people. Often, the larger the particle, the higher the chance of toxicity. The larger particles will contain more than one irritant.
The possible risk to your health will also depend on two other factors: first, the number of dust particles in your home and, second, the length of your exposure to them.
The types of industry in the surrounding area of your home can also affect the dust you encounter, such as a chemical plant. The chemical particles can fly in your open window and attach to the dust and dust mites like humidity.
The are many reasons why you would want to open a window, getting rid of dust just isn’t one of them. Make sure you read our article on what happens if you never open your windows.
Household dust is rarely a cause for concern unless you already have an underlying lung condition such as asthma or emphysema.
The small, microscopic particles will irritate the lungs and bronchial passages, which can exacerbate lung diseases. Even if your lungs are healthy, exposure over long periods may eventually lead to issues (source).
Dust mites are the most significant contributor to household dust. Dust mites are arachnids related to ticks, chiggers, and spiders. They gather on the floor and other surfaces such as bedding, furniture, carpets, and even mattresses.
Unlike ticks, chiggers, and spiders, dust mites do not bite.
House dust mites are microscopic, .5mm long at most. They are shaped like a globe, white or clear, with a hairy body.
The two most common species of household dust mite found in the United States are the North American Dermatophagoides farinae and the European Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus.
House dust mites need a reasonably warm, humid environment to thrive because the mites lose moisture through their skin and become dehydrated quickly. Despite their need for a moist environment, you can still find them in every type of climate.
The household dust mite will be most numerous in beds, bedding, couches, carpeting. All these surfaces hold moisture and dander, specifically from humans and pets, making for the perfect environment.
There are five stages of development of a dust mite, much like any insect: egg, larva, protonymph, tritonymph, and adult.
As they grow, they molt and shed their outer skin. One household dust mite can lay up to 50 eggs over their 1- to 2-month lifespan. On one spec of dust, you may see thousands of dust mites.
You don’t have to be a scientist to measure the infestation of dust mites in your home; you can purchase a dust mite detection kit.
You can purchase these kits from drug and allergy supply stores, and they work by taking dust samples from various rooms in the home. Next, mix these samples into indicator reagents.
If you find you have an infestation of dust mites, there are measures you can take to lessen how many there are in your home.
By taking these steps, you will also help to relieve any allergies or asthma you may have developed due to their excrement and the proteins contained within.
Steps to Reduce the Number of Dust Mites in Your Home
One of the most commonly recommended methods, especially by allergists, is to remove carpeting, upholstered furniture, drapes, and curtains. If you have small children, allergists recommend that you remove stuffed toys.
Replace these items with ones that are easily cleaned, such as leather, blinds, and low-pile area rugs.
As mattresses are often found full of dust mites, allergists recommend that you cover them in vinyl or plastic, which cannot be permeated by mites or dust.
For mattresses and pillows, the covers should slip completely around and zip closed. If your pillow says it is non-allergenic, that is only regarding the materials that make up the pillow. Dust and mites can still get into the pillow.
Although covering your bed and pillows with vinyl or plastic seems uncomfortable, there are many made with suitable materials to increase comfort.
If you get a new mattress, even if you do not have allergies, it is a good idea to cover the mattress and seal out any critters you do not want in bed with you.
Always wash your bedding, sheets, blankets, and comforters once a week in hot water. Only hot water kills the mites and their larvae.
If you choose to keep curtains or drapes, buy only washable ones. This way, you can be sure to launder them more often rather than having to bring them to a dry cleaner.
If possible, try to lower the humidity in your home to 50% or lower. Air conditioning is one ideal way to reduce humidity but only practical for part of the year.
Installing a dehumidifier and making sure your home is well-ventilated is a good strategy year-round.
If you vacuum regularly, you are removing dust, dander, and perhaps a small number of dust mites. It is best to use a vacuum with a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestor) Filtration System.
Without a HEPA filter, all you are doing is blowing what you are vacuuming up back out into the air.
When you are dusting, the same basic logic applies. If you “dry” dust, you are just spreading the dust mites around into the air only to resettle in another place.
Use a commercially available dusting spray such as Endust or Pledge. At the very least, dampen your dust cloth, and using a microfiber cloth while dusting is also effective. Never use a feather duster!
There are a few other methods you can employ in your fight against household dust.
There are companies you can hire to clean your duct system once or twice a year, though having someone else do this for you will not necessarily reduce allergies or other breathing issues any better.
The use of HEPA air filters on your heating system can significantly reduce the amount of dust, dander, and other small particles circulating in your house.
You can also consider treating your carpeting with products made for killing dust mites. However, that would also introduce unwanted chemicals into the air and is not wholly effective (source).
Products that May Help Reduce Household Dust
There are products on the market that will help reduce dust, pollen, and improve indoor air quality.
Humidifiers are something we think about using when we are sick or in the winter when the air is dehydrated. After all, soothing our chapped lips and dry sinus passages is essential.
However, humidifiers may not be all we hoped for and might be adverse to our health and indoor air quality.
Dust mites thrive in moist, humid environments, and a humidifier will inevitably provide the perfect conditions for the mites to thrive.
Mold, a known allergen, also thrives in damp environments. Ideally, the humidity levels in your home should be between 40% and 50%.
There is a tool that will measure the humidity level in your home. A hygrometer is a tool designed to measure the amount of humidity and water vapor in the atmosphere, the soil, or in confined spaces.
Using this tool will enable you to cut down the population of those pesky dust mites.
Regular household water contains a concentration of minerals, which increases the growth of bacteria, and the white dust on furniture contains these bacteria.
If you are using a humidifier, fill it with distilled or demineralized water. Thoroughly clean the humidifier according to the manufacturer’s instructions to retard the growth of mold.
Keep your air conditioner on during allergy season to reduce the amount of pollen coming in through open windows.
Air conditioning takes the humidity out of the air as well as keeping the indoor air temperature comfortable. It is imperative to use high-quality HEPA filters in your air system. There is a multitude of brands and quality filters on the market.
When buying an air filter, look for filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) that rates the effectiveness of the filter. The higher the rating, the more efficient.
The Microparticle Performance Rating (The MPR Rating), developed by 3-M, rates the ability of the filter to capture particles that are less than 1 micron in size (source).
Keep in mind that you should change your filter once a month. Measure before you buy, some systems use a 4-inch deep filter, but not all do. Height and width also vary from system to system.
An air purifier’s function is to clean contaminants out of the air to improve indoor air quality ultimately. However, not all air purifiers are the same. There is a difference between air purifiers and air cleaners.
Air cleaners will remove more particles from the air than the traditional air filters you use in your heating and air conditioning systems. An air cleaner uses a fan to pull air in through a filter to remove particles.
These air cleaners do remove more particles than just using your air system filter alone.
Air purifiers use a system to “deactivate” the toxins found in the air, such as mold.
Some air purifiers use ultraviolet light sterilization, which kills mold and bacteria. Other types of purifiers rely on an electrostatic filter to draw the particles onto a metal plate.
There are air purifiers that combine both an electrostatic filter and ultraviolet light to trap gasses, bacteria, mold, and dust particles.
While an air purifier will not prevent the common cold, it is a good investment if you have allergies, asthma, or other lung issues.
When looking at the types of filters used, be sure to buy a certified HEPA filter and not one that is labeled HEPA type.
The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers is one of many independent labs that tests and rates filters without prejudice.
They’ll issue a clean delivery air rating (CADR) to aid consumers in choosing an appropriate air purifier for their needs (source).
As with other ratings, the higher the CADR rating is, the more effective the machine. The Association also recommends that you pay attention to how often filters need to be changed and the square feet it will cover.
The electrostatic air purifiers do produce a small amount of ozone, which can, in high amounts, cause health issues. Therefore, using a reputable independent testing lab is the best way to know if you are getting your money’s worth.
Spring, summer, and fall are the seasons you want to be able to open your windows and bring in the fresh air, something that is important for your indoor air quality.
Unfortunately, while opening windows may be healthy, it will not reduce the dust or pollen in your home.
Opening windows invites dust, dirt, and pollen in. While you can’t eradicate dust, there are measures you can take to reduce household dust from accumulating in your home.