Study Finds Presence of Toxic Chemicals Linked to Cancer and Infertility in Household Dust

The chemicals come from numerous common products from flooring to beauty and cleaning products

Study Finds Presence of Toxic Chemicals Linked to Cancer and Infertility in Household Dust
Image: Pixabay
September 14, 2016

Researchers have discovered that household dust harbors numerous toxic chemicals linked to the increased risk of several health hazards from cancer to infertility.

The sources of the chemicals, reports The Guardian, are found in several common household products from flooring and electrical items to beauty and cleaning products.

Endangering Children

"We think our homes are a safe haven but unfortunately they are being polluted by toxic chemicals from all our products," said Veena Singla, co-author of the study from the Natural Resources Defense Council in California.

The researchers noted that children are especially vulnerable to health risks from contaminated dust because they often play or crawl on the floor and touch their mouths.

"They end up having a lot more exposure to chemicals in dust and they are more vulnerable to toxic effects because their brains and bodies are still developing," said Singla.

In examining the chemical makeup of the dust, the scientists analyzed 26 peer-reviewed papers—and one unpublished dataset—starting in 1999 and on. The researchers who wrote those papers studied numerous indoor environments, ranging from homes to schools to gymnasiums, across 14 states.

"What emerged was a rather disturbing picture of many different toxic chemicals from our products that are present in dust in the home and [are] contaminating the home," said Singla.

The Guardian points out the apparent paradox of houses that are too clean being linked to increasing allergies and asthma in children, possibly because the children are not being exposed to different kinds of microbes. It notes, however, that the health risks stemming from the presence of toxic chemicals in household dust are different.

The Chemicals

The study highlighted no less than 45 toxic chemicals—including flame retardants, fragrances, and phenols—present in indoor dust, of which 10 were present in at least 90 percent of the dust samples.

One of the flame retardants is known as TDCIPP, known to cause cancer and often found in furniture foam, carpet padding, and, disturbingly, baby products. Another is TPHP, which is one of the top 10 chemicals that can adversely affect the reproductive and nervous systems.

"They are just a bunch of letters – a lot of people might not recognise [sic] what those chemicals are, or what they mean, but they are really a number of bad actor chemicals," said Singla.

Researchers also found other chemicals called phthalates in nearly all the dust samples. These chemicals are frequently found in vinyl flooring, food packaging, and personal care products. They have been linked to numerous health risks, including developmental problems in infants, hormone disruption, and potentially the reproductive system.

Although some of the chemicals discovered by the scientists have either been banned from use in childcare products or are being phased out, many remain in consumers' homes.

"Especially for building materials there is not as much turnover of a lot of those products, like flooring," Singla said. "Unfortunately even though some of these phthalates have been banned from kids products, they are not banned from other kinds of products."

She also conducted another (unpublished) analysis in which she compared chemical levels found in household dust to the soil screening levels that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses. The results were startling.

"What we found – and we were shocked by it actually – is that the dust levels exceed those EPA screening levels for a number of the chemicals and again it is the phthalates and flame retardant chemicals that are standing out as the bad offenders here," she said.

Consumers Can—and Should—Take Action

Singla does note, however, that consumers can take steps to reduce their exposure to contaminated dust. In addition to vacuuming floors, they should wash their hands with plain soap and water before eating, as well as reduce the levels of dust present in the household by cleaning with a wet mop and dusting using a damp cloth.

She believes that, although there needs to be a wider policy change regulating the use of toxic chemicals, consumers can take action now by choosing the products they buy more carefully. This, she hopes, will send a message to the manufacturers and lawmakers.

"It is really important for companies and regulators to get the message that people care about this and want and need safer products for their families."

According to University of Birmingham Professor of Environmental Chemistry Stuart Harrad, the research in this student supports previous work done on indoor pollutant hazards.

"This review of evidence for the presence of consumer chemicals in indoor dust from the US confirms the substantial evidence for the presence of the same chemicals in dust from UK cars, homes, and offices, as well as school and nursery classrooms," he said. "This is pertinent as we and others believe the presence of these chemicals in consumer articles and dust leads to their presence in human milk and blood."

Stephen Holgate, a clinical professor of immunopharmacology at Southampton General Hospital, is concerned about the apparent ubiquitousness of the toxic chemicals.

When combined with the evidence found in other studies, he said, "there is an urgent need to consider the indoor environment as a crucial source of chemical pollutant exposure."