Backgrounder #1: Bust that Dust

Common house dust contains low levels of toxic chemicals released by everyday household items such as electronics, plastics, furniture, cleaners and leaded paint. Chemicals in dust can include heavy metals, flame retardants, pesticides and other toxic chemicals.

Crawling infants and young children are more highly exposed to toxic chemicals in dust as compared to adults. Their behaviours, such as crawling on the floor and frequent hand-to-mouth activity, lead to higher exposures via ingestion. Infants and children also breathe more, per unit body weight, and thus experience greater exposure to the chemicals affixed to airborne dust particles.

Children are vulnerable to the harmful effects of chemicals in dust. Their brains and bodies are still developing, and these toxic substances can interfere with normal growth and development. Their immune systems and other natural defenses are also immature, contributing to their greater vulnerability.

Lead [1]

Exposure to even low levels of lead can disrupt physical and cognitive development in the developing fetus, infants and children. Even at low levels, lead exposure is linked to behavioural problems, learning disabilities and hearing impairment. It is known to cause infertility. About 50 percent of the daily lead intake of two-year old urban children comes from house dust through typical hand-to-mouth behaviour.

Flame retardants [2]

Polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (PBDEs) are chemicals that have been widely used in carpets, draperies, upholstered furniture, televisions and computers to make them less likely to catch fire. PBDEs are continuously released from these products and end up in household dust. Dust is a significant source of human exposure to PBDEs. From animal studies and limited human data, there is evidence that PBDE exposure may disrupt the endocrine system, particularly the hormones of the thyroid gland, which in turn may disrupt fetal brain development. There is also animal evidence that PBDEs are toxic to the developing nervous system and act as reproductive toxicants. Further, PBDEs are suspected carcinogens.

The Canadian government has plans to ban the production and import of all PBDEs. Even if the ban is implemented, PBDEs will still exist in products that people have in their homes that were manufactured or imported before this date.

Other chemicals of concern [3]

Other chemicals that have been found in household dust include

  • phthalates, likely originating from vinyl flooring and other softened plastics, such as shower curtains
  • alkylphenol compounds used in cosmetics and other personal care products 
  • organotin compounds used to stabilize PVC plastics or to kill dust mites in carpeting
  • short-chain chlorinated paraffins used in plastics, paints and rubbers. 

Additional studies have found residues of pesticides in dust.

Tips for prospective/new parents

For parents and families, simple actions — such as keeping floors and other surfaces clean and dust-free, having washable mats at entryways, and removing footwear at the door — can help reduce fetal/child exposures. It is important to dust with a cloth that is dampened with regular water, rather than a dry cloth or duster that will recirculate the dust back into the air. Using a good quality vacuum, ideally one fitted with a HEPA filter, is also important to avoid reentrainment of dust into the air.

For more information

CPCHE’s dust-busting webpage includes an overview of the issue, exposure-reduction tips for families, and quick links to relevant CPCHE resource materials as well as those of other authoritative sources.


[1] CPCHE. 2005. Child Health and the Environment: A Primer. CPCHE: Toronto, pp. 24, 27, 46, 65.

[2] CPCHE. 2005. Child Health and the Environment: A Primer. CPCHE: Toronto, pp. 38, 51, 55, 56.

[3] CPCHE. 2005. Child Health and the Environment: A Primer. CPCHE: Toronto, p. 65.