Folks may think they’re being health-conscious by buying only organic fruits and vegetables, making sure their family gets plenty of sleep and exercise, and toting around small bottles of hand sanitizer. But could dust bunnies lurking in corners be exposing their families to cancer-causing chemicals?
That, in fact, is the fear raised by recent research. Toxic chemicals, including at least one known to cause cancer, often hide in furniture, nonstick cookware, and even toys, according to a recent George Washington University study. Those chemicals can be released in the air and caught in the dust mites lurking in the nooks and crannies of homes and offices. And once that happens, those bad agents can be breathed in, ingested, or even absorbed through the skin.
The health risks are highest for young children, according to the study, given their fondness for crawling around on the floor and then putting their hands in their mouths.
“The findings suggest that people, and especially children, are exposed on a daily basis to multiple chemicals in dust that are linked to serious health problems,” lead author Ami Zota said in a statement.
The researchers found there are about 45 chemicals commonly found in house dust. They determined that 10 of those toxic substances are hiding in 90% of homes. Shudder.
“The number and levels of toxic and untested chemicals that are likely in every one of our living rooms was shocking to me,” study co-author Veena Singla, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.
(Most of the data came from the East and West Coasts, so it’s unclear how serious the problem is for folks living in the middle of the country, according to the Washington Post.)
Phthalates, which could lead to lower IQs and respiratory problems in children, were the most common chemicals. The plastic softeners are often found in cosmetics, toys, and vinyl flooring. Maybe it’s time to invest in hardwood floors?
Phenols, found in furniture, electronics, and building insulation, were next up. They can potentially cause reproductive and hormone issues. They are typically used in cleaning and beauty products such as detergents and shampoos. They were followed by cancer-causing flame retardants.
Highly fluorinated chemicals, like PFOA and PFOS, are linked to immune, digestive, developmental, and endocrine system problems. They are in cellphones, pizza boxes, and nonstick cookware.
Renters and homeowners don’t have to invest in sterilized bubble suits to protect themselves and their families. They should, however, ditch the feather duster and switch to a dust-gobbling vacuum with a HEPA filter, according to the study. Frequent hand-washing and using chemical-free products can also work wonders.
For those in need of extra assistance, the Silent Spring Institute, a Newton, MA–based breast cancer prevention organization, created a Detox Me app to help folks eliminate dangerous chemicals from their homes.
And certain houseplants can also absorb the bad agents through the air, according to a State University of New York at Oswego study. They include popular decorative vegetation like spider plants, flowering bromeliads, and ferns. Peace lilies and Caribbean tree cacti can also help reduce the amount of toxic chemicals in the air.