We discuss the potential adverse effects of elevated levels of dust in an indoor environment on the occupants. Furthermore, we break down the constituents of common dust, and how they affect the human body.
Can a dusty house make you sick?
Yes, a dusty house can make you sick. Dust refers to the fine sized solid particles that are present in the ambient environment.
They can originate from natural processes, such as soil particles lifted into the air by winds, volcanic eruptions, pollen, animal dander, etc.
Even human activities can contribute towards dust. Processes such as traffic, industrial emissions, burning of fuels, as well as smoking have been shown to contribute towards dust generation.
Common constituents of dust
As mentioned earlier, dust particles arise from a variety of sources. In the indoor environment, some of the main contributors to dust are:
- Outdoor sources
- Dead skin and animal dander
- Dust mites
- Food debris
- Insects and insect droppings
- Toxic substances
Let us discuss these in more detail.
In a typical indoor setting, nearly 60% of the total dust arises from outdoors. This number can vary depending upon the location of the place, climatic settings, and other factors such as distance from road, combustion frequency in the area, etc.
Some of the main constituents of these are particulate matter (PM), which include pollen, soil, particulates from combustion activities and smoking, and other outdoor activities one can think of.
PM refers to particles, either solid or liquid, that are mixed and suspended in the air. They are a major part of air pollutants, and have a variety of natural and anthropogenic sources.
Some of these PM particles that are below 2.5 microns in size, known as PM2.5, have seriously adverse effects on human health, and long term exposures can cause serious health issues and even premature death.
The dust particles mainly act as allergens, and can also get trapped in one’s clothing and hair, from where they enter the home.
For people living in urban areas, or places near a road, air purifiers are a must have, since the pollution generated from traffic can easily enter the house, and if not removed, can adversely affect the health of occupants.
Dead skin and animal dander
It is a common misconception that most of the indoor dust is attributed to dead skin. However, dead skin particles only contribute a fractional amount to the total indoor dust.
However, these dead skin particles act as a magnet for other dust related particles such as dust mites, or even other serious air pollutants such as mold, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and so on.
Similarly, pet dander refers to the tiny flecks of skin that are generated from pet animals such as dogs, cats, birds, etc. Even if you may not have a pet of your own, visitors may bring pet dander into your home on their clothing.
Pet dander attracts dust and dust mites as it travels through the air and settles, thereby worsening the problem.
Dust mites are tiny pests that live in humid settings and flourish. Even if your home isn’t excessively hot or humid, dust mites are likely to be lurking in your beds, carpets, and curtains.
The more dust you have, the more dust mites you have, because dust is made up of things like pet dander and dead skin, which are two of dust mites’ favourite diets.
Dust mites and their waste products are relatively weightless. Therefore, they can stay suspended in the indoor air for a long time, and affect one’s health if inhaled.
Food debris refers to the tiny crumbs of particles that fall off from food stuff. These can include crumbs from bread, biscuits, etc.
These tiny food particles on their own become a natural component of indoor dust, and also provide nutrition to other microorganisms such as dust mites, mold, bacteria, and so on.
These microorganisms in turn proliferate and generate waste products which become a component of indoor dust as well, further worsening the situation of household dust.
While larger food debris can be simply cleaned away, the smaller ones can be suspended in the air. However, these particles usually cause minor irritation in the throat and nose.
Insects and insect droppings
No matter how spotless one tries to keep their home, there are always certain insects lurking around in the corner. Dust mites are also one of them, and we have already discussed their contribution to indoor dust in great detail.
However, there are other types of insects, such as flies, bugs, and one of the most notorious, cockroaches. Cockroaches can easily infest homes, and hide in some of the most obscure places in the house.
Cockroaches can also trigger allergic reactions in some individuals, and their droppings can further aggravate those allergies.
Moreover, cockroaches can easily enter the household from multiple areas, so it is almost impossible to get rid of them, especially for people living in apartment complexes.
There are various sources of toxic substances in the house. These can include common household items, pesticides, paint containing lead, asbestos, and so on.
These particles pose a serious threat to human health, as they have been shown to seriously affect organs such as lungs, kidneys, etc., and can even cause cancer.
A survey on composition of household dust reported in 45 studies found out that more than 90% of reported dust contained compounds that are toxic or carcinogenic in nature.
These compounds can have a more pronounced effect on certain groups of individuals, which include:
- Older people
- Pregnant mothers
- People with pre-existing illnesses
How to avoid accumulation of house dust
Based on how the common constituents of house dust can adversely affect human health, it is important to prevent and minimise aggregation of dust indoors.
This can be done in several ways, which include
- Improve indoor ventilation
- Clean your house regularly
- Invest in an air purifier
Let us discuss these in detail.
Improve indoor ventilation
Ventilation is an important feature in order to keep the indoor air clean. Adequate ventilation helps to bring in fresh air which dilutes the concentration of indoor pollutants, as well as carry away the pollutants from the house.
Compared to other options, it is relatively cheaper, as it incorporates minimal energy consumption. If your basement has windows, it would be ideal to open them from time to time in order.
For rooms which have no windows, such as basements, but have a central air system, installing exhaust fans attached to the ducts helps to circulate the air.
Lastly, for rooms which neither have windows nor a central air system, one could use table fans which would help to circulate the air within the basement, and promote air exchange from adjoining rooms.
However, sometimes relying on natural ventilation may not be ideal, especially if you live in a polluted place, or near a source of pollution. This would lead to infiltration of outdoor pollutants, thereby causing an exacerbation of the indoor dust problem.
Clean your house regularly
It is ideal to maintain a regular routine of cleaning your house, as this helps to eliminate the aggregated dust in your house. There are multiple ways to approach this problem.
You should clean your bedding on a frequent basis, ideally once a week. Furthermore, you should regularly dust surfaces, especially those surfaces which are prone to accumulation of dust.
Additionally, you should avoid air purifiers that use the principle of air ionisation, as the particles entrapped by the ions get sedimented in the form of dust, thereby aggravating the problem even more.
Invest in an air purifier
Air purifiers are devices which, as the name suggests, clean the indoor air. Using the air purifier is one of the most efficient ways to minimise household dust.
The majority of air purifiers work by removing dust from the air. The True HEPA filter, which is a means of absorbing most pollutants, including dust, is found in many air purifiers.
A True HEPA filter has a 99.97 percent efficiency value for capturing microscopic particulate matter as small as 0.3 microns.
Air purifiers pull in the indoor ambient air and pass it through the HEPA filter, which entraps the dust particles present in the ambient air.
Dust particles, owing to their relatively small size, get easily entrapped in the indoor air due to the motion of air. Once suspended, these can also be inhaled by the occupants.
Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.
Higher levels of dust concentration in the house can make you sick. This is because dust contains particles that can act as allergens, or cause serious issues, depending upon their concentration as well as the duration of exposure.
Therefore, in order to ensure that the occupants do not face the adverse effects of dust accumulation, it is important to clean and dust the house regularly.
Furthermore, ventilation can also help to get rid of indoor dust, provided that the outdoor air quality is comparatively better than that for the indoor environment.
Lastly, one should invest in an air purifier, as these devices remove the dust particles that are suspended in the indoor air.
Should I keep my air purifier on at all times?
Yes, you should keep your air purifier on at all times. This is because the pollution is more or less continuous in nature, meaning that as long as a source is present, so is air pollution, including dust.
If you turn off your air purifier, the dust particles start aggregating in the indoor air once again, which would eventually affect the health of the occupants adversely.
Furthermore, air purifiers do not consume a lot of electricity for operation, therefore making it feasible to be kept on at all times.
What are the symptoms of inhaling dust?
The common symptoms of inhaling dust are:
- Sneezing, since dust particles cause irritation in the nasal passage.
- Runny or stuffy nose, which is a result of the body’s immune system trying to flush out the dust particles.
- Red, itchy or teary eyes, as dust particles cause irritation in the outer layers of the eye. As a result, the tear ducts produce tears in order to flush out the particles from the eyes.
- Wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest and shortness of breath. This is because dust particles can irritate the inner linings of the respiratory passage, and that in turn affects the breathing.
- Itching of the skin, as some particles such as pollen, animal dander, etc., contain organic compounds that can cause irritation of the dermis.
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- Mäki, J.M., Kirjavainen, P.V., Täubel, M. et al. Associations between dog keeping and indoor dust microbiota. Sci Rep 11, 5341 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-84790-w
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