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What is dust? And where does it all come from?


Everything in our houses is gathering dust. but what is it exactly? Where does it come from and why does it keep coming back? Is it from the outside? Are the fibers in our clothes and the cells in our skin?

Yes, but it’s much more than that.

People from all over Australia have sent their dust to the DustSafe program at Macquarie University. Instead of emptying the vacuum cleaner in the trash, they pack it up and we analyze it. As a result, we get to know the secrets of your dust! A total of 35 countries are part of this program.

Here’s a taste of what we know so far.

Dust is everywhere

Dust is everywhere. It settles on all surfaces in the natural environment as well as inside homes and buildings – where we spend about 90% of our time, even before COVID.

Some dusts are natural, coming from rocks, soils and even from space. But the DustSafe program reveals that Australian house dust can include dirt such as:

Dust from inside your home

Some estimates suggest that a third of the trace element contaminants in house dust come from sources inside your home, with the rest migrating outside via air, clothing, pets, shoes. , etc.

You and your pets are constantly contributing to the dust of skin cells and hair. Dust is also made up of decaying insects, bits of food, plastic, and soil.

Intuitively, one would think that having pets carrying a variety of organic contaminants, including feces in homes, is somewhat disgusting. However, there is new evidence that some “dirt” is beneficial because it can help your immune system and reduce the risk of allergy.

You and your pets are constantly contributing to the dust of skin cells and hair.(

Pexels: Anastasia Shuraeva


Cooking, open fireplaces, and indoor smoking add very fine dust to your home as well as contaminants of concern, which are associated with poor health outcomes.

The dust contains a large collection of chemicals, including those listed in the UN Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which are linked to certain cancers, birth defects, immune and reproductive system dysfunctions, to greater susceptibility to disease and damage to the nervous system.

The chemicals used in pesticides and in our clothing and furniture also combine with dust in our homes. Toxic flame retardants are used in countless household products, including children’s pajamas, and can end up in dust.

Dust also contains microplastics from clothing, packaging, rugs and furniture. They are easily inhaled and ingested, especially by children who often put their hands in their mouths.

Pefluorinated chemicals or PFAS – known as “forever chemicals” – are used in many household products, including cosmetics and some non-stick surfaces. These chemicals are also found in our household dust.

Dust from outside your home

About two-thirds of household dust comes from outdoors.

Soil from the garden and dust from the road collects on your shoes or is blown away in windy weather. Outdoor dust particles get into the hair of your pets. Vehicle exhaust dust also gets indoors.

Recent dust storms have carried topsoil from farmland and desert areas to our homes in the city.

Bushfires create fine particles of atmospheric dust, which can contain toxic components from past pollution.

A fire is burning in the bush, with thick smoke billowing through the trees.
About two-thirds of household dust comes from outside sources such as bushfires.(

Provided: Dave McGiveron


Dust from nearby mines and industry can lead to toxic exposures to children.

Poor air quality and damp homes cause illness and death.

By inference, dust would also contribute to adverse health effects. Certain types of dust are particularly bad; There are new concerns about exposure to silicosis dust for tradespeople and asbestos dust from home renovations.

Excessive use of disinfectants and antibacterial products has been linked to the increased prevalence of antibiotic resistant genes, which we can detect in our dust.

Almost one in five Australians suffers from allergic rhinitis (hay fever), caused by dust-related allergens such as dust mites, pollen, animal dander and skin particles.

Act against dust!

House dust is a part of life. Even in closed houses, it will still settle from the interior atmosphere, leak from ceiling cornices and attics, and seep into your living spaces through cracks around windows and doors.

Any particles of dirt, smoke, fibers or crushed materials that enter the air eventually turn to dust.

But there is a lot you can do.

We can try to prevent dust from getting inside. Use doormats and take your shoes off indoors. Children or animals covered in mud can be wiped up at the door and dusty work clothes should be removed upon entering.

An illustration of a father vacuuming with a baby attached to him
Vacuum cleaners equipped with a fine particle filter are more efficient at removing allergenic dust.(

Illustration: Emma Machan


We can choose wisely which chemicals we allow in our homes and how they are used.

Reducing our use of plastics, pesticides and waterproofers will help reduce the chemical load. Quit unnecessary antibacterial products. A damp cloth with soap or detergent is just as useful for cleaning a surface.

Vacuuming regularly helps a lot. Vacuum cleaners equipped with a fine particle filter (such as a HEPA filter) are more efficient at removing allergenic dust.

Dusting with a dry cloth or feather duster is likely to recirculate dust back into the air, so use a damp cloth instead.

Wet cleaning of hard surfaces also removes fine dust left by sweeping or vacuuming.

To learn more about your dust, send a sample to DustSafe.

Mark Patrick Taylor is Chief Environmental Scientist at EPA Victoria and Honorary Professor at Macquarie University, Cynthia Faye Isley is Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Sciences, and Kara Fry and Max M Gillings are occasional scholars at Macquarie University. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.

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