Holiday Cleaning: It's Open Season on Dust Bunnies

Household dust contains not only allergens, but often arsenic and other contaminants, too.

November 12, 2009

Besides triggering allergies, some dust bunnies contain toxins.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you’re hosting guests during the holiday season, there are some visitors you definitely don’t want lurking in the corner—dust bunnies. And it’s not just a cosmetic thing, either. Those seemingly innocent balls of fluff contain allergens like dust mites (and their waste), animal allergens, including pet dander, skin flakes, urine, and even cockroach particles. Even worse, a 2009 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology suggests that indoor dust bunnies can also be often laced with lead, arsenic, and other harmful substances.


THE DETAILS: In the study, Arizona researchers found that much indoor dust is trudged in or blown in from outside. (See, your mother really did have a good reason for making you take your shoes off at the door!) Once inside, it can mix with indoor allergens, including skin cells and carpet fibers, and even dust containing pesticides you apply to your pet or flame retardant chemicals from your couch and electronics.

WHAT IT MEANS: When you’re expecting guests, the ambiance is just as important as the food. But dust, scented candles, air fresheners, and even chemicals in holiday decorations could all trigger allergy problems in the estimated 50 million people living with various types of allergies. That’s why proper holiday cleaning and careful planning in consideration of your guests—and your family—are a must.

Here’s how holiday cleaning and prep work can keep your guests sneeze-free.

• First, find the right cleaners. A new Environmental Working Group study analyzed contaminants in common cleaners and found that many contain possible carcinogens and asthma and allergy triggers. To make a cheap and effective general cleaning solutions that kills many germs, mix 1 part white vinegar with 9 parts water. Wipe the extra-dirty areas down with warm, soapy water and then finish off with the vinegar solution. It dries shiny and the smell goes away within an hour. Use a damp cloth or mop to wipe up dust on uncarpeted areas, and use a good vacuum cleaner, preferably one with a HEPA filter, to drag allergens out of carpets.

• Know your guests' pet peeves. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), about 10 percent of the general population is allergic to dust mites, and another 10 percent live with pet allergies. If you have pets, make sure you let your invitees know, and offer to keep your animals in a separate room during the gathering. Some potential guests may be so allergic that they might not attend. Bathe your pets the week of the party to reduce dander.

• Take on dust mites. For guests spending the night, make sure you wash covers and pillowcases in hot water (130 degrees) to kill off lingering dust mites. Since the sun's ultraviolet rays can also kill them, hang linens outside to dry if it's sunny—you’ll also save energy and money on your electricity bill. According to ACAAI, there may be up to 19,000 dust mites in a gram of dust! So don’t cut any corners when vacuuming or mopping. And consider keeping toys and other dust-gathering items in a container with a lid to prevent dust buildup. Keep your home's humidity as low as you can while staying comfortable; dust mites die if the humidity drops below 40 percent.

• Smell good naturally. Most spray and plug-in air fresheners contain synthetic fragrances that contain a chemical soup of volatile organic compounds, some carcinogenic, and ozone that can trigger breathing problems. Opt to use beeswax candles for candlelit ambiance, and brew your own natural air freshener on your stovetop.

• Vent it. Mold can also send people into sneezing fits and make them sick, so after cleaning your bathroom with nontoxic cleaners, make it a habit to open a window or run the exhaust fan during showers to deter mold growth. Do the same in the kitchen when you're cooking.

• Consider enforcing a no-shoe policy. This may seem a bit extreme, but if you’re going to great lengths to keep your floor not only clean, but also uncontaminated, ask guests to slip off their shoes at the door. Speaking of prohibitions, you should also enforce a strict no-smoking policy in your home to protect everyone’s lungs.