As part of an evil plot to tie women to the kitchen, scientists have revealed that house dust really does matter, just as your mother told you. Apparently, that harmless-looking powdery stuff that dwells in our homes is a cocktail of hazardous substances that would feel at home in a Superfund site.
In case you missed last week's column, let me introduce you to the Dust Baddy Hall of Fame: lead, arsenic, cadmium, pesticides, volatile organic compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which include pyro-a-benzene, tar and others. You thought it was what, dirt?
These track-in facts can help you determine how risky your dusty corners might be:
* Urban soil tends to be more contaminated than country soil.
* Soil near busy roads is more contaminated than that in quiet backwaters.
* Older homes have more leaded paint and may contain more pesticides than newer homes.
* Homes that have been remodeled and those with peeling paint have more paint dust than intact ones.
* Last, but not least, the homes of people who just looooove to vacuum have much less dangerous dust than those of us who think we may have seen a vacuum cleaner but can't recollect exactly where or when. What can you do to clean up? The first step toward cleaner household dust is to stop invaders at the door. The best way to do this is to declare your house a shoe-free zone.
Post a sign beside the front door asking people to take their shoes off inside. (Outside would be best, but it's a little inhospitable in the winter.) Place a large mat just inside the door and, if you have room, set a small bench or chair next to it. Provide slippers for guests, since many people are uncomfortable padding around in their bare feet.
Taking your shoes off every time you enter the house takes a little getting used to. Make it easier by keeping a pair of rubber gardening clogs, or flip-flops, by the door. Any time you want to check the mailbox, turn on the hose or do any quick outdoor work, don't bother with your street shoes, just use your slip-ons. This will work with children, too, though it is not practical with toddlers.
If you don't want to change your habits this drastically, buy two industrial-grade walk-off mats. Put one outside the door, one just inside. Train yourself and family members to wipe feet hard -- twice outside, twice inside.
While you can post a sign asking visitors to remove their shoes, asking people to wipe their feet is a little more awkward. It's a little like asking someone to wipe his nose, in fact. You may just have to ignore guest track-in. But regular visitors to your house will catch on pretty quickly.
Now comes the part I hate: Vacuum thoroughly, once a week. If you have small children, vacuum the rugs they play on twice a week. Make sure your vacuum cleaner works properly, and empty the bag before it is full. Change the belt if it is worn: Take the cover plate off the bottom twice a year and check the rubber belt for signs of wear and stretching.
John Roberts, an environmental toxics consultant and pioneering lead-dust detective, finds that vacuum cleaners with sweeper bars outperform canister style vacuums on rugs. Consumer Reports corroborates this. If you don't have an upright carpet sweeper, you can buy a decent one for about $100. Or you can share one with a neighbor, or with other apartment dwellers in your building.
Do some research before starting any remodeling projects that involve disturbing painted walls in a pre-1950s house. Find out how to protect your family from the lead dust that will be created by the work. Roberts recommends moving out while paint is removed. Call your public health department to find out what measures they suggest. Your rugs can become a permanent reservoir of lead if you don't protect them adequately.
Keep toys clean. If your toddler is always putting things in her mouth, consider getting her hooked on a pacifier. This will be easier to keep clean than all of the dozens of things she'll put in her mouth every day. Wash children's hands frequently, too.
If you are allergic to dust mites, this dust abatement program is just the beginning for you. Call an allergist for advice on such niceties as vacuuming your window blinds -- or getting rid of them entirely.
For a fact sheet on lead in household dust, send $2 to Washington Toxics Coalition, 4516 University Way, NE, Seattle, Wash. 98105.
(Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to the Household Environmentalist and send it to Susan McGrath at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)