Under the Microscope

Did you know dust in your house has 10 harmful chemicals?


It’s a warm summer afternoon, sun shining through kitchen windows. The front door flies open; kids and dogs come bursting in two by two. Running through the house and right out the back door. As they leap off the back steps, birds and squirrels scatter to the safety of nearby branches. Twenty minutes later, just as the dust cloud settles, the scene repeats.
This is the nature of our homes and neighborhoods. We live in busy spaces filled with the lively activity of people and animals. Dust is kicked, stirred, and whipped up into the air inside and out on a daily basis and we breath it in all day long. What is in the dust?
A study conducted with help from Dr. Ami Zota, a population health scientist at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, found at least 10 harmful chemicals in 90% of household dust samples gathered. According to the research, phthalates occurred in the highest concentrations, followed by phenols, RFRs (fire retardants), fragrance, and PFASs (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Adverse health effects of these chemicals include chronic disease risk, IQ deficiencies, and reproductive issues. The wide variety of consumer chemicals linked to potential threats for children’s health were often co-occurring and found in mixtures, a point which Dr. Zota emphasizes in a video explanation of her work, “This is important because the health effects of mixtures have not been well studied."
In a recent study the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emphasizes the importance of thinking about potential mixtures of products. According to the EPA website, “In this study, EPA researchers focused their analysis on endocrine disrupting chemicals and flame retardants. One hundred household products were tested from 20 diverse household product categories, including shampoo and clothing. EPA researchers found 4,270 unique chemical signatures across the 100 products…. Chemical standards confirmed the presence of 119 chemical compounds.”
Phthalates, phenols, PFASs can all be found in various pesticides. These products are often considered “inert” ingredients in pesticide mixtures which also contain even more toxic “active” ingredients. To learn more about the risks associated with household pesticides, I spoke with Drew Toher, the Community Resource and Policy Director for Beyond Pesticides, a national organization that “works with allies in protecting public health and the environment to lead the transition to a world free of toxic pesticides."
Toher explained, “The most commonly used pesticides in residential households are insecticides. Within that group, the synthetic pyrethroid class of insecticides are likely the most common. They are the active ingredients found in most RAID products. This use is concerning because studies show that this class of chemicals are linked to a range of adverse health effects, particularly in young children. Children with higher levels of pyrethroids in their urine are three times as likely to have mental delay compared to children with lower levels of exposure. Synthetic pyrethroid exposure increases risk of premature puberty in boys, a finding that was recently expanded to show early puberty development in both boys and girls aged 7-11 with higher levels of pyrethroid in their urine. One study found pyrethroid exposure before, during, and after pregnancy associated with increased risk of infant leukemia.”
Toher further cautioned, “Products like the synthetic pyrethroids can linger in homes for well over a year, remaining toxicologically active and risking re-exposure. Pesticides used outdoors can also be tracked inside, with one study finding that the commonly used lawn herbicide 2,4-D was tracked indoors – it was able to be detected in indoor air and found on indoor surfaces throughout one’s home." As for mixtures Toher said, “Studies on pesticide mixtures and synergy are unfortunately few and far between. EPA does not require testing on mixtures or potential synergy despite the facts that products can be packaged with multiple active ingredients, people are exposed to multiple pesticides daily, and consumers may use multiple pesticides inside the home. One concerning synergy that may commonly occur in homes is between DEET products and synthetic pyrethroids. Combined, these products can result in significant neurotoxic effects, and may have even played a role in the development of Gulf War Syndrome among Gulf War veterans.”
Managing an organic household and landscape is the best way to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harmful chemical mixtures. Organic foods can greatly reduce our exposure to chemicals in pesticides. Natural fibers for clothing, furniture, building materials, and bedding can also reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals. Choose natural cleaning products like vinegar, washing soda, and castile soap, and avoid pesticides inside and outside the house. Next summer, practice organic house and landscape management to help keep the kids, pets, and the whole neighborhood a little safer.
Russ Henry is a landscaper, naturalist, gardener, soil health specialist, and educator. The Longfellow business owner is devoted to pollinator protection, urban farming, local food system development, and restorative justice.


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