Where Does Dust Come From?
Sources of household dust vary from home to home. Universally, dust can be from many sources. House dust mostly consists of particles and particulates from the outdoors (50-60%). Approximately one-third of particles and particulates come from indoor sources such as fabric fibers, human skin cells, pest debris and feces, food debris, and cooking fuels, among others. Home furnishings such as books, newspapers, carpets, rugs, upholstered furniture, fireplaces, and pets all contribute to the dust load. Soil, pollen, smoke, exhaust, sand, pollen, and many other stowaways on your shoes or clothing are responsible for dust inside. Chemical particulates from flame retardants, other chemical treatments used in manufacturing home furnishings, paints, and finishes also contaminate your breathable air. Mold, bacteria, and dust mites are all likely to inhabit and often proliferate in dust. Past generational building materials can contain other toxic elements such as heavy metals, arsenic, asbestos, and DDT. These and others can be present in dust.
Dust + Moisture = Mold
Given dust is everywhere, moisture from condensation, humidity, flooding, leaks, etc. is the most common cause of harmful pollutants. When moisture is combined with dust, organic debris, pathogens, microorganisms, and dust mites can reproduce at rapid rates. Microorganism reproduction is inevitable wherever there is excess moisture and they can pollute your indoor air. This can result in chronic health issues. Check any visible pipes for condensation or mold. HVAC registers are also likely to hold moisture due to condensation. Look for condensation from any visible pipes in your home and around your HVAC air handler. Clean where moisture and mold is present.
Water damaged homes have long been known to cause illness. However, establishing a causal relationship is very complicated since there are wide varieties of potential pollutants. Diagnostics lack specificity and precision. Also, every individual person reacts to foreign matter differently. One person’s immune system may tolerate pollutants while others may not. It has been estimated that approximately 25% of the population have the HLA-DR genetic variation. These individuals are more likely to be very sensitive to mold. Most mold sensitive people are often sensitive to chemicals as well. The ability to minimize dust in your home is the best way to reduce the circulation and potential exposure to these chemical elements.
Indoor Air Quality and Mold Counts Always Correlate
Indoor air quality is most often determined by the presence of microscopic particulates (separate parts of a whole particle) of allergens, pathogens, toxins, and pollutants that can impact human health negatively when inhaled. While dust exists everywhere and most is not toxic, dust buildup is always a nuisance and should be removed. The human eye can see visual evidence of large dust particles becoming airborne when sweeping or dusting. However, the eye cannot see or distinguish the tiny particulates that become airborne pollutants. These particulates hitchhike on dust to become and remain airborne. They can be airborne for hours or days. Volatile Organic Compounds (“VOCs”) are chemical particulates or vapors that circulate in your home air. Pollutants such as gases, secondhand smoke, and fragrances can create odors that reflect their presence. If you can smell something good or bad strongly (other than food), it is likely an air pollutant.
Thus, the causal relationship between dust and other particulates becomes complex and unclear. Indoor Air Quality (“IAQ”) professionals can measure particulates with particle counters. These devices use lasers that can count and differentiate particulates by their size.
- PM 10: inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 10 micrometers and smaller; and
- PM 2.5 : fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller.
- UFPs: ultrafine particles, with diameters that are 0.1 micrometers and smaller
Particulate matter includes microscopic droplets that are so small that they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems. Some particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter can reach deep into your lungs and enter your bloodstream. Of these, particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as fine particles or PM 2.5, can enter lung and sinus tissues and pose great risk to health. Below is a picture of a portable particle counter I use with the accompanying guide. There are wide ranges of prices for particle counters. In recent years, less precise but functional particle counters for IAQ applications can be purchased from $100-$1,000 for quick and easy reads on the particle counts present. For clean rooms, labs, hospitals, operating rooms, food and drug manufacturing plants, and other highly contained rooms that require GMP practices and regulatory monitoring, particle counters can cost $10,000+. Below is the best value particle counter I have found, which I purchased for $170 and was consistently toward the top of particle counter reviews.
Temtop Air quality monitor and guide.
While a particle count may be helpful to determine the quality of your air, it is not conclusive in determining if harmful particulate matter is present. This is what is most important when addressing health issues. It will also not address any symptoms occupants are feeling. The only piece of important information is that wherever there is dust, you will find microbial and chemical VOCs. Thus, managing dust in a home directly correlates with Indoor Air Quality (“IAQ”) and fewer VOCs.
The “Flashlight Test” – an Inexpensive Dust Determination Method
At any time, occupants can get a good barometer on the dust in any indoor environment. Below are some pictures I took using the “flashlight test” on what appear to be clean surfaces. I did not dust specific surfaces in my home for 2 weeks for this purpose. As you can see, in normal light it looks clean.
What appears to be a perfectly clean table (of surface) can be dusty. This is why HEPA vacuuming and dusting with a damp microfiber towel is important to remove the dust. My rule of thumb for good measure is to routinely dust and vacuum before you can see dust. So, I vacuum and dust often. I manage to vacuum the entire house 2 times weekly and dust each room once a week. Mold is ubiquitous in any outdoor and indoor environment. Wherever you find dust, you will find mold if the dust is tested.
The flashlight test reveals dust that is easy to miss.
This is the main reason I vacuum daily. Her name is Cami and she is covered in grass. Pets shed hair and dander, chew up toys, and track dust, grass, pollen, and mold into the house each day.
Managing Dust: Tried and True Tools & Techniques
Gone are the days when we were only armed with a broom, dustpan, and feather dusters.
It is best to acquire a high quality HEPA canister vacuum. These vacuums are more powerful than most regular priced vacuums and use a certified industrial HEPA filter to remove fine particulates and seal them in the canister. There are stripped down versions of HEPA canister vacuums for sale for approximately $300-$400; however, the standard high quality HEPA Vacuums recommended by IAQ professionals (such as the Miele vacuums) will be built to last and come with various tools to vacuum upholstery and clean hard to reach spaces. These vacuums can cost in the range of $800- $1,200. Believe it or not, my vacuum is 20 years old. If the $1,000 version is not in your budget, my personal preferences are the traditional upright vacuum that uses HEPA bags (such as the Hoover WindTunnel Max Bagged Upright Vacuum Cleaner, with HEPA Media Filtration and the EnviroCare Replacement Micro Filtration Vacuum Cleaner Dust Bags Designed to fit Hoover Windtunnel). To be considered a true HEPA filter, the filter must be certified to remove 99.97% of all microscopic particles as small as 0.3 microns in size. HEPA vacuum bags will be made of polypropylene, have some stretchability, and have layers. Many have the same type of layered materials as HEPA AC filters). In fact, during the peak of COVID when masks were not available, many industry people used HEPA vacuum bags to make custom masks for COVID.
HEPA vacuum bags will pick up significantly more volume of dust than paper bags. I once used a Hoover T series upright vacuum to clean the home that my elderly parents were in hospice. Our initial cleaning filled 7 bags by vacuuming and re-vacuuming the bedroom carpet where they stayed. You can read “Home Hospice: An Unintended but Invaluable Benefit CitriSafe and Bio-Balance Solutions.” HERE.
Recommended Vacuum Products:
High Quality HEPA Long-Lasting Canister Vacuums
Price Friendly HEPA Bag Vacuum
Specified HEPA Bags
2. Cordless Hand-held “Stick” Vacuums
Finally, there is a market trend to buy newer cordless vacuums. These lightweight vacuums have proven to be very effective and easy to use. In fact, people tend to use the vacuum daily vs waiting for a vacuuming or cleaning event. While they are not true HEPA vacuums, these vacuums are proven to remove a significant amount of dust as you can see it all when emptying the canister with each use. Removing dust serves the same air quality purpose. If you are very sensitive, you can wear an N95 respirator mask while vacuuming and can leave the room while dust settles. The majority of dust will settle out of the air within an hour.
Empty vacuums outside as you can potentially release significant particulates into the air that can result in significant exposure. Use an N95 mask and latex gloves when emptying bagless vacuums.
“Always empty or replace bags or filters for your vacuums outside!”
John Banta, Certified Industrial Hygienist. Coauthor, “Prescriptions for a Healthy House: A Practical Guide for Architects, Builders and Homeowners.”
3. Robotic Vacuums
Robotic vacuum cleaners (Roomba, other brands) have become quite popular. These are automated vacuums that sweep entire rooms by remote. They can be scheduled to perform their tasks when you are away from home, on a daily schedule. While they are not HEPA vacuums, many have a “HEPA” filter to trap the smaller particulates. Daily vacuuming with a ‘Roomba” can remove significant amounts of dust, dander, and other debris. Eliminating the accumulation of large and some small dust particulates will significantly improve the air quality.
Daily Robotic Vacuuming can significantly remove amounts of dust and debris.
Testing Dust for Mold
- Test any potentially mold contaminated visible dust with ImmunoLytics Mold Swabs. These microfiber tipped swabs maximize the dust sampled and results cost $33 per sample, including consultation.
- Test any dust that accumulates around the air handler of your HVAC. HVAC systems tend to be installed in unfinished parts of the home (Basement, Attic) where dust accumulates. Condensation often occurs around the air handler where refrigerant piping and drainage of condensation are found. Here, moisture meets dust and mold can flourish.
- Test air registers where dust accumulates.
- Shower tiles that are discolored (green or black) can be small sources of mold
- Consider a whole house hot fogging solution. BioBalance produces the HavenFog Kit to fill the home in its entirety. Adding more fog than air in your home will allow the fog to penetrate cracks and reach all surfaces, vertical or horizontal.
Interesting Facts About Dust
- Dust in houses and offices is made up of a combination of pollen, hair, textile fibers, paper fibers, soil minerals, cosmic dust particles, and various other materials found in the local environment.
- The average home in the United States collects 40 pounds of dust each year.
- A rug or carpet can weigh up to 8X of the weight when it was installed.
- Non-HEPA vacuums redistribute dust particles in the air due to inadequate filtration.
- The average person creates 1/3 ounce of dead skin each week, which is about the weight of a car key. This dead skin combines with other particles to create household dust.
- Dead skin cells from humans and pets compose a large portion of dust accumulation in the home. The dust mites eat the dead skin and their dead bodies and fecal matter cause allergic reactions in people.
- Depending on how small the particle is, dust can stay suspended in the air for up to 5 days.
- An amount of dust just the weight of a dime is enough to create carcinogenic levels in a room 10 ft x 10 ft by 8 ft tall based on OSHA allowances.
- Some dusts are combustible.
Suggestions for Better Indoor Air Quality
HVAC Air Filters
Replacing your HVAC filters regularly is essential for IAQ. Waiting 6 months to change filters as recommended by the manufacturer is not sufficient. The extended use of filters is bad for the air and the HVAC system. Filters become clogged which will tax your HVAC system, decreasing its lifetime. If your HVAC system has a variable speed air handler, you can use MERV 11 filters without taxing the HVAC motor. MERV 11 filters out 95% of airborne molecules and particles sizes from 1 – 3 micron. If your HVAC is a fixed speed and you worry that the filter will inhibit airflow, utilizing a MERV 8 filter will remove 90 % of air particles from 3-10 micron particle size. Read more about HEPA filtration at “Your HEPA Vacuum and Air Purifier Can Be Your Best Friend” HERE.
HEPA air purifiers are very effective in filtering microscopic particulates in a particular space. Many people use these in high traffic rooms and where they sleep. While there are several new technologies being promoted for air filtration, experienced environmental professionals universally recommend traditional HEPA filtration because of its effectiveness. Learn more about HEPA air purifier selection HERE with a Q&A on air purifiers with JW Biava, CEO of ImmunoLytics.
Additional Precautions for IAQ
- Take safety precautions by using an N95 mask, goggles, latex gloves, and a Tyvek suit when possible. All of these can be purchased at big box home improvement stores.
- Inspect your home for moisture and water damage. Take notes and pictures so that you can test for mold.
- Avoid using toxic chemicals as they may be irritants. In addition, mixing common chemicals can create toxic vapors that can be inhaled. I recommend a non-toxic botanical blend such as CitriSafe Remedy Mold Treatment Spray to clean while dusting.
- Clean from the top down. Use a vacuum with upholstery tools to remove dust where you can. Otherwise, use a damp microfiber cloth to wipe away dust.
- Dust all horizontal surfaces. Do not forget above cabinets, refrigerator, shelving dust, and bed frames well.
- Clean baseboards routinely.
Dust management is always important and has a positive impact on indoor air quality and dangerous microorganisms in the air. Keeping a regular schedule of vacuuming using some of the automated and lighter vacuums, cleaning, and air purification to manage dust and mold will improve your wellness. Next week, we will discuss the specific chemicals and microorganisms that can impact you and your family’s wellness.
- M. Kuhn, M. A. Ghannoum. “Indoor Mold, Toxigenic Fungi, and Stachybotrys chartarum: Infectious Disease Perspective”Clin Microbiol Rev. 2003 Jan; 16(1): 144–172.
Cesar Collado is a former pharmaceutical R&D senior executive, venture capitalist, and seasoned strategy consultant in biotechnology and technology industries in general. He currently works as an advisor to multiple technology start-ups and advises several companies with technology solutions, including companies that provide healthcare and other services for environmental illness.
Cesar worked with MicroBalance Health Products from 2014-2019, where he had responsibility for strategy, revenues, marketing, and finance, as well as, writing all original content for the company’s newsletters during his tenure. Cesar is passionate about awareness and treatment of environmental illness as a significant, unmet and misdiagnosed, medical need. He has partnered with Integrative Physicians, Bau-Biologists, Environmental Inspectors, Mold Remediators, HVAC IAQ Specialists, and other professionals to generate educational materials for the environmentally ill. Cesar currently writes original content for ImmunoLytics, Bio-Balance, and CitriSafe: Protocols and Products for a Healthy Life.