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Those chemicals and others in dust have been linked to serious illnesses such as asthma and cancer, as well as to hormonal changes and developmental and reproductive problems, the researchers say. The study was led by Ami R. Zota, Sc.D., at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Young children are especially vulnerable because they're more likely to come into contact with and ingest dust than adults.
Zota and the other researchers reviewed information from indoor dust analysis studies published during or after 2000. They calculated concentrations of 45 chemicals found in samples collected across 14 states. Most came from people's homes, but they also reviewed data on dust found in day-care centers, gymnasiums, schools, and people's cars.
They estimated how much of each chemical, on average, actually gets into the body through breathing or swallowing, or through the skin.
"These estimates show that these chemicals do not stay in dust; rather, they get into bodies," says Robin Dodson, Sc.D., a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass., and a co-author of the study.
To keep dust levels in your home low, Dodson says, you should vacuum regularly. A good air purifier might help, too. (Our buying guides to the best vacuums and best air purifiers can help you find good ones.)
The team found that phthalates, a class of chemicals commonly used to soften plastic, represented the highest concentrations in dust particles and were among the highest in terms of exposure to children. The chemical is widely found in plastics used in food packaging, personal care products, and vinyl flooring.
All the samples contained DEHP, one of the most potent phthalates, Dodson says. It has been linked to hormonal disruption and can have harmful effects on the parts of the body that direct biological development and reproduction.
Flame retardants were also among the top 10 chemicals found in dust particles. As with phthalates, they have been linked to hormonal disruptions, toxicity in reproductive and developmental systems, and cancer.
"I had a suspicion that the phthalates were going to rise to the top," Dodson says. "But the fact that flame retardants were almost equally as high was interesting."
Have you been sickened by the dust in your home?
Aside from using a good vacuum, an excellent way to limit your contact with these chemicals in general is to identify products you want to avoid, she says. Silent Spring Institute has developed a free app that offers several hundred research-based tips for consumers.
You should also wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth or mop, and make sure to wash your hands frequently, especially before you eat. That's extra important for children, who tend to pick up dusty things from the ground or floor and pop them into their mouth.