Allergies, Carpets, And Cleaning, Part 1: Dust

"That dusty ol' dust is a-gettin' my home…" –folk singer Woody Guthrie


Did you know there are 50 million people walking around this country every day having to deal with itchy bloodshot eyes, and stuffy noses—and they aren’t even sick? It’s not life-threatening, thank goodness, but is sure is irritating to them and to the people they’re trying not to sneeze all over. The problem, of course, is airborne allergens. They’re mostly what triggers that unpleasantly familiar package of symptoms we call hay fever, BKA “allergic rhinitis”—because hay isn’t really what causes it. And to boot—more and more people are getting these allergies. If it’s not hay, what’s doing this to us?

Carpets And Allergens

Before we answer, let’s bust a myth—that you’re better off with plain hardwood or vinyl flooring than with wall-to-wall carpeting because carpets harbor allergens. The truth is exactly the opposite. Because allergens do lodge among the fibers of your carpeting, far less of them are drifting in the air of your living room than if you had smooth flooring, according to a 2005 study conducted by the German Allergy and Asthma Society. The allergens on a hard surface floor are free to dance around and get blown into the air, where you then breathe them in (wheeeeeze…). But carpet holds on to them with its furry little fingers, trapping them where they can’t be inhaled. So—on one condition—air quality in carpeted spaces is actually less sneeze-o-genic than in non-carpeted ones. That condition, of course, is that all those allergens get swooshed out of your carpeting thoroughly and regularly.

Dust—And What’s In It

You may already know that the biggest allergy trigger in homes is dusty ol’ household dust. But what’s the dust made of? Glad you asked—though you may not be, when you hear the answer. About 60% of it comes from outside, through windows, doors, A/C vents and also on your shoes. A lot of that borne-in dust is just soil, but it also includes yuckiness like dried animal poop, soot, arsenic, lead, and pesticide residues. The indoor sources, we’re sorry to have to tell you, are also pretty gross—animal hair, decomposing insects, food debris, lint and organic fibers from clothes, bedding, and other fabric. Often there’s also sooty little particles from smoking and cooking.

Skin, Dander, and Mites: More Yuck

Sorry–this is going to get worse. The single biggest component of indoor-generated household dust is dead skin—yours and your pet’s, if you have any. Let’s start with yours. The average human sheds up to 1.5 grams of mostly microscopic skin flakes (roughly 1.5 million particles) every day. A lot of that ends up on the floors of your home. These particles aren’t allergenic in themselves, but they’re the main food source for household dust mites. These microscopic critters mostly live in carpets and bedding, and again, it’s not so much the mites themselves that cause the allergy—it’s the digestive enzymes in their poop. Enzymes are proteins, and other allergenic proteins are found in pet “dander”—think dandruff—another term for tiny flakes of dead skin. (Myth-Bust #2—it doesn’t matter whether your dog or cat is long- or-short-haired; it’s the breed that makes the dander difference.) About 10% of us are allergic to dust mites—but that includes 80% of asthmatic children. And especially in wintertime, the allergic itchy-runny-stuffy afflicting your mucous membranes makes you vulnerable to colds and other respiratory bugs. Vacuuming, even using an up-to-date machine with a HEPA filter, may not get all the dust mites and their dander dinners out of your carpeting. But the right kind of cleaning will. (And washing in hot water will get them out of your bedding,)

Getting Your Carpets Clean—The Right Way

The experts say that all carpeting should be professionally cleaned every 12-18 months. Conventional carpet cleaning fluids, though, often contain harsh detergents and volatile synthetic compounds (VOCs) that can irritate your skin or nasal passages—or that are actually poisons, like naphthalene. If this stuff is used to clean your carpeting, there’s typically a toxic residue left behind that can spread into your indoor air—just like the pollutants the cleaning got rid of! Not a great trade-off. But the good news is that it’s completely unnecessary. Since you’re reading this here, you won’t be surprised to learn that we recommend going with a “chemical-free” carpet cleaning company—ummm, us, for instance?—that relies on common, nontoxic substances and high-pressure hot extraction methods to leave your carpets and your air genuinely healthier.

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