Smallest particles that can harm health

House dust is a wondrous matter. For most people, the tiny particles and fluff that like to clump together to form stately “dust bunnies” are a nightmare: the fight against the fluffy deposits, which are equated with dirt and poor hygiene, can never be won. Because dust accompanies people always and everywhere. Even when the windows are closed, particles of earth, wood and soot penetrate the rooms from the outside. The occupants themselves also contribute to the layers of dust with their hair, dander and clothing lint. Matter is a fascinating field of research for scientists. The conglomerate of different particles allows conclusions to be drawn about the environment, creatures and their habits.

Conclusions about the environment and living beings

Every few years, the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) evaluates full vacuum cleaner bags from hundreds of households in Germany. “It contains a hodgepodge of particles, such as plastic debris, hair, dander, mold spores, house dust mites and their faeces, pollen, humus and minerals,” reports UBA researcher Wolfram Birmili. A comparison of the analyzes reveals changes over the years that form the basis of valuable insights. For example, scientists have seen that exposure to concern phthalates, which act as plasticizers, has decreased. But just listing all the different components of house dust makes it clear: the substances that accumulate in the gray mass are anything but healthy. A few years ago, researchers at George Washington University found 45 potentially dangerous pollutants in various dust samples as part of a meta-analysis.

Problem number one is allergies. Dust mite excrement, pollen, mould, animal hair and proteins from indoor plants can be strong allergens. “There is no interior that is free of allergens,” says environmental hygienist Julia Hurraß from the Cologne City Health Department.

Particulate matter can be a serious health hazard

“The dust on the ground that you can see is not that bad,” says toxicologist Prof. Jeroen Buters from the Center for Allergy & Environment (ZAUM) at Helmholtz Zentrum München. These are larger particles that are not inhaled. Airborne dust is much more dangerous. In addition to allergens, you can also inhale tiny fine dust particles that aggravate allergic symptoms such as asthma. The smaller the particles, the deeper they can penetrate into the body. The symptoms they can cause range from irritation of the mucous membranes to local inflammation in the airways and increased plaque formation in the blood vessels. In the long term, particulate matter pollution can lead to cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer, among other things.

Particulate matter often enters rooms from outside. For example, it is caused by internal combustion engines and tire abrasion – apartments near busy roads are therefore particularly affected. But fine dust is also produced in the rooms themselves, namely whenever high temperatures are generated, for example by gas stoves, fireplaces, household appliances and by smoking. Especially in the Advent and Christmas season, a lot of these tiny particles are created by burning candles and incense smokers. Toddlers who crawl on the floor and put a lot in their mouths are at even greater risk: they also swallow larger granules that can carry harmful chemicals. “A small child absorbs an average of 100 milligrams of dust per day,” says Hurraß. There’s only one thing that helps: “Wipe regularly.”

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Proper cleaning is what counts

A lot can go wrong when cleaning. In the worst case, the particles that are on floors and surfaces are only whirled up, so that allergy sufferers are even more at risk. “A comparison of several schools showed that the most particles were found in the air where the most cleaning was done,” reports toxicologist Buters. But leaving the dust behind is no solution either. When cleaning, you should make sure to remove as many particles as possible.

Buters recommends vacuuming first, especially for households with allergies, using a device that is equipped with an additional special filter. After that, wiping is the order of the day. It’s best to run an air purifier at the same time to capture as many particles as possible: In a recent study, Buters and his colleagues found that certain air purifiers can reduce indoor allergen exposure by about 80 percent.

Air purifiers can help allergy sufferers

The German Allergy and Asthma Association (DAAB) also considers air purifiers to be useful in certain cases. First of all, however, house dust mite allergy sufferers should cover their mattresses with an allergen-proof cover (encasing) and remove dust traps like open bookshelves. Carpeted floors should be vacuumed several times a week with a vacuum cleaner with a fine dust filter, smooth floors should be wiped with a damp cloth once or twice a week. “Anyone who still has problems can buy an air purifier,” says DAAB spokeswoman Sonja Lämmel.

With the vacuum cleaner, it is advisable to change the bag more often and to clean the filters regularly. Wet vacuum cleaners do not necessarily bring advantages, says Lämmel. Since mold and germs quickly form in the water tank, you have to pay close attention to hygiene with such devices. Otherwise, the “allergy-friendly” certificate from the European Foundation for Allergy Research can serve as a point of reference when buying a vacuum cleaner.

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Proper ventilation is even more important than proper cleaning: it is best to provide a few minutes of ventilation several times a day. “The air outside is usually always better than inside,” says Hurraß. In addition, this reduces the humidity. And that makes life difficult for dust mites and mold.

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