Suddenly the microwave doesn’t seem so bad.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the dust bunnies under your bed aren’t just harmless pet dander and carpet fuzz—they’re loaded with toxins. Thanks to the stuff we drag in on our shoes, pollution floating in through open windows, and home appliances that release chemicals over time, endocrine-disrupting compounds can be found everywhere in the home. But if you think that vacuuming once a week could help, think again: Your vacuum is your biggest problem.
How does dust become toxic?
Know this—everyone has a dirty house, even the most OCD amongst us. That’s because indoor dust is inevitable if anyone is living in your home. A combination of dead skin cells, fungi, mold, carpet fibers, pet dander, decomposing insects, food particles, and soil that’s been tracked inside from our shoes make up the little tumbleweeds hiding behind the couch. And how we live affects our dust, too. Particles from smoking and cooking make their way into the air; spraying pesticides to keep ants at bay lingers in the flour and counters; and every occupant (or furry friend) adds more particles to the indoor dust.
On top of that, furniture and appliances can release toxins over time—particularly anything that was made before 2005, because it likely still contains PBDEs, flame retardants that have been since discontinued from use in the U.S. because of the correlation to breast cancer. Still, the Silent Spring Institute released a study that found 66 endocrine-disrupting compounds in household dust—a horrifyingly high number.
Exposure to fire retardant toxins by way of dust can lead to deficits in motor skills, learning, memory, hearing, and changes in behavior at critical points of development in childhood. Hormone disruptors cause negative developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects, and have been linked to cancer, brain dysfunction, memory loss, weight gain, chronic fatigue, and infertility. And they don’t just affect you and your family—endocrine disruption can have the same effect on animals.
Why does vacuuming make things worse?
It seems like a quick fix—just vacuum your house, right? The machine will suck up all the nasty stuff, and then there’s nothing to worry about. Not exactly.
A study published in Environmental Sciences and Technology examined 62 different types of vacuums—varying in price, model, and brand—and found that every single one released some dirt particles and bacteria back into the air, even the models that included special filtration systems that were supposed to prevent indoor air pollution. That means vacuuming alone isn’t a solution for eliminating toxins, and it’s especially bad news for anyone with asthma or dust allergies.
How to make your vacuum less toxic
Just because your vacuum is spitting back dust doesn’t mean you should ditch the appliance altogether. No doubt, the benefits of vacuuming up dirt, mold, and pet hair outweigh the negatives. But there are a few things you can do to reduce the amount of toxins that float around in your home:
- Vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter. HEPA filters should suck up at least 99.97 percent of particles, although the study published in Environmental Sciences and Technology noted that even HEPA-certified vacuum systems released some toxins into the air. However, they still fare far better than their counterparts, and the models that scored the lowest were those that were made more than 10 years ago.
- Clean the filter in your vacuum with water instead of shaking it into the trash. Rinsing with water minimizes dust blowback, and does a better job of purifying your filter anyway. Easiest way to do this? Load up the sink with water and submerge the filter, scrubbing it until it’s clean.
- Use your vacuum on furniture to get rid of dust mites and fabric particles. It’s an especially good idea if your couch or armchair was purchased before 2005, as it might contain toxic fire retardants. Give the cushions a good cleaning every time you vacuum the rest of your home.
- Use a wet cloth to wipe smooth furniture (like wood or plastics) that accumulate dust. Dirt will latch on a wet microfiber or cotton cloth, so it doesn’t have a chance to float into the air and give you allergies.
- If you can toss items that create toxins, it will help with overall indoor air pollution. Small things like getting a doormat to wipe feet on, taking shoes off as soon as you enter the house, replacing products that were made before 2005, and buying all-natural cleaning products can make a huge difference in air quality.
Your home should be a place that makes you feel comfortable and safe—not somewhere that makes your nose stuffy and gives you allergies! With these cleaning tips and trips at your disposal, though, you have the power to banish toxic dust forever.
Illustration by Foley Wu