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Anatomy of a Dust Bunny

All the dusty details, plus tips on how to keep the bunnies at bay

Dust Bunnies 101

Photo by Yunhee Kim; Illustration: Serge Bloch

Ever wonder where those small-and-furries come from? Believe it or not, environmental scientists have been trying to pick apart this mystery for years. Turns out the average dust sample can contain anything from insect fecal matter and fungal spores to lawn chemicals and heavy metals—and most of it walks right in through the front door. It's enough to induce a sneezing fit in even the hardiest of humans.

Spores and Germs

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Allergy- and asthma-aggravating mold spores thrive in dusty places that are also warm and humid. It's unclear how long cold and flu germs survive, but dead bacteria throw off endotoxins, another lung irritant.

Alphabet Soup

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More than 100 toxins have been found in household dust: PAHs (car exhaust, tobacco, barbecue grills); PBDEs (fire retardants); phthalates (plasticizers); and phased-out but still extant PCBs, DDT, and 2,4-D (herbicide).

Natural and Industrial Poisons

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They'll never entirely go away: We mean things like arsenic, a by-product of burning coal (and of volcanoes), and lead, an enduring legacy of leaded gas and paint. Toxins that linger in soil and dirt linger in dust, too.

Insect Remains

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Moth wings, cockroach legs, and rodent, pet, and dust-mite feces are all part of the world around us—maybe just 2 feet away. Ask anyone allergic to the castoffs from mites, which thrive in humid rooms and unaired beds.

Dander, Lint, and Hair

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Skin flakes, hair and pet fur, animal dander, carpet and fabric fibers, pollen, and even greasy food bits are united with all the other dust ingredients by static electricity and propelled—under the bed and elsewhere, of course—by air currents.

Heavy Metals

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They're undeniably useful in manufacturing but potentially dangerous when inhaled—we're talking cadmium, copper, nickel, and lead. Toxic metals are found in higher concentrations in dust than in garden soil, according to the EPA. Mercury used in some light switches and thermostats may be to blame.

Keep It Clean

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The dust particles swirling in a ray of sun fall down to and rise up from the floor, where dust and grit concentrate in carpets and crevices. To avoid dragging in nasties and kicking them up, try these preventative measures.

Keep It Clean: Shed Shoes and Use Doormats

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About 60 percent of dust particles travel indoors on shoes. Lay down a runway: a mat outside to scrape off dirt, one inside to grab grit and moisture, and a hard (moppable) floor. Or just take off your shoes at the door.

Keep It Clean: Vacuum—a Lot

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Choose a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter to capture and contain dust that would otherwise be launched back into the room—and your lungs. Don't forget mattresses and furniture. Vacuum at least weekly or more often, depending on where you live.

Keep It Clean: Dust Last, Not First

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After vacuuming, dust with a damp microfiber cloth or a disposable fabric duster. Bothered by germs and dried footprints? Try a handheld or stand-up steamer to sanitize floors.