Getting the dirt on dust Analyzing house dust may help uncover pesky irritants

April 30, 1991|By Frank Roylance | Frank Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

IF SOMETHING IN YOUR HOUSE has been driving you crazy -- making your eyes itch and your nose run -- experts at Johns Hopkins Hospital may be able to tell you what it is.

The hospital's allergy laboratory is offering a new state-of-the-art house-dust analysis service that may be able to identify and measure the irritant, called an antigen, and show you how to get rid of it.

"If you eliminate the antigen, you eliminate the problem," said Robert G. Hamilton, who directs Hopkins' Dermatology, Allergy and Clinical Immunology (DACI) Reference Laboratory.

For a fee starting at $25, the DACI lab will analyze and measure the antigens in your house dust by mail, estimate your risk of developing allergic symptoms from it, and suggest ways to reduce it. DACI is one of only two labs in the country offering the service commercially.

But be warned: Anyone who's not serious about taking action against the evils lurking in their house dust -- even if it comes to throwing out the carpeting -- need not apply. Hamilton talks with all applicants and "if they're not suitable, if they're doing it on a lark, I will tell them so."

Although his lab will take requests from individuals, he prefers to deal with patients through their allergists, who can determine in advance which patients will really benefit from the service.

More and more people are taking notice. Since the service first became available in January 1990, requests have climbed from "15 or 20 every couple of weeks," to "five or six every other day."

If something is causing an allergic reaction, Hamilton said, it's far better to remove it than to suffer with it, take medications to treat the symptoms or endure an endless series of allergy shots.

Typically, homes in the United States can have "all kinds oterrible things in them," Hamilton told an allergy symposium at the university's Bayview campus.

Among the most common irritants in house dust are dried skin flakes, or dander from cats, and fecal matter from dust mites. The mites are invisibly small bugs related to spiders that have evolved to dine on our dead skin cells, and they live by the millions in our beds, carpets and furniture.

If Hamilton, or your allergist, agrees that you're a good candidate for a dust analysis, the DACI lab will mail you a kit containing a filter attachment for your vacuum cleaner.

Following the lab's instructions, you will attach the filter mechanism to your vacuum cleaner hose and collect dust samples in separate filters from your mattress, the floor under your bed, upholstered furniture, the TV room, basement, bath or any other place your problems may reside.

Then you just mail the whole kit back to DACI. Scientists there will grind the dust into a fine powder and put it through a series of mechanical filters.

From the final sample, the lab will use standard chemical procedures to isolate any proteins that might cause your allergies. Then, with recently developed techniques using monoclonal antibodies -- genetically engineered substances that seek out specific types of proteins -- the lab will isolate known antigens in the sample and measure their amounts.

Mold spores in the sample will also be cultured and grown for identification.

Finally, the DACI lab will estimate your risk of developing allergy symptoms from the amount of antigens in your house dust.

If the problems lie in your carpets, you may be advised how to clean them more effectively, or to throw them out and replace them with throw rugs that make the room easier to clean. Mattress and pillow covers, better dust control and cleaning strategies, humidity controls, electric air filters and other solutions may also be suggested.

It may not always be a cheap solution, Hamilton said, but "if you have a son or daughter with an asthma condition, you should be willing to do anything in your power to eliminate that allergy. The carpeting will be a small price to pay for being able to clean the house more easily," he said.

For more information, you can call the DACI lab at (301) 550-2029 from Maryland locations or 1-800-344-DACI in other states.

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