From dust to more dust

Editorial Notebook

March 27, 2004|By Nicky Penttila

HAVEN'T STARTED your spring cleaning yet? Consider putting it off - forever.

Why disturb the interior ecosystem? The grime on the top of the fridge, for example, isn't harming anyone at the moment, but dusting it away could kick up particles of lead, pesticides, PCBs, mold and even toxins left over from past cleaning forays. It's tempting just to let those sleeping microbes lie.

And it's not as if hosing down the house with those fancy antibacterial concoctions will reduce the number of fevers, sore throats or rashes in the family. A Columbia University study has found that such products don't cut the risk of bacteria-caused symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea. Researchers also pointed out that the most common infections are viruses anyway, so antibacterials couldn't ward them off.

What's more, many microbiologists say babies and young children should be exposed to certain types of common bacteria to kick their immune systems into working order. Keeping a too-squeaky-clean house might just doom the little ones to a life of sniffles and headaches from allergies and asthma.

Plus, the minute you walk over and plop down on the couch, you've started up the re-pollution. Two people walking through a room and then sitting on a sofa kick up as many dust particles as dusting. That's what researchers at Stanford University found when they set particle detectors throughout an allergy-suffering colleague's house - one without wall-to-wall carpeting, upholstered furniture or other obvious allergens - and watched what happened. They also found that vacuuming can kick up deeply embedded particles (last year's fumigation? old foot-powder dust?), and that the vacuum bags catch only some of them.

Newer houses suffer from successful weatherproofing. Tightly sealed homes hold in the detritus from cleaning supplies, hair sprays and other modern conveniences.

Older homes are often speedily dissolving into their molecular components, many of which are now considered toxic. There's just no stopping the entropy; it's a miracle anyone's still breathing.

OK, OK, so we're exaggerating. Filth is bad; cleanliness has its merits. Spring cleaning isn't just for physical health, either. It's also a psychic cleansing, a help in celebrating the sunnier seasons and a reliever of the painful "this house is a pit" moments. Beauty at home is a valid ambition - stuff that's not all gunked up lasts longer. For the older members of the cleaning team, it's a reminder that they really can still stretch up and twist their bodies to reach the top corner of that window - or that they now can't. And there's no discounting the peace of mind in being prepared for picky Aunt Edna's annual visit.

Families with members who suffer asthma or allergies are on continual high dust-mite alert. But many others already may be naturally falling away from the spotless ways of generations past, when Mom often stayed home and spent much of her time cleaning.

Now Mom often spends most of her waking hours outside the home, and every family member is supposed to share in upkeep. Their abilities vary, so the standards of success have lowered. Not to nothing, but maybe enough to keep the next generations' immune systems fortified.

For now, perhaps the best thing is to open the windows, have the family cleaning team don face masks and then tear through the house like mini-tornadoes. Then quickly bundle everyone off to the movies, giving the house, and its resilient dust, time to settle down.

Or just call the whole thing off.

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