Health & Science

Scientists Find Surprising Way Household Dust Might Make Our Kids’ Illnesses Harder To Treat

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Scientists have made a surprising discovery about household dust: bacteria living within dust can spread antibiotic-resistant genes. It’s important news because antibiotic-resistant germs are a growing problem, causing our kids to get more intense illnesses that are harder for doctors to treat.

The study, out of Northeastern University in Evanston, Illinois, found that the bacteria in dust can swap genes, which sometimes include antibiotic-resistant properties, with other nearby bacteria in the household.

The vast majority of bacteria found in dust are pretty harmless—but it’s when a pathogen (disease-causing organism) finds its way into the household that this gene trading can cause problems. Lead researcher Erica Hartmann, Ph.D., explains, “A nonpathogen can use horizontal gene transfer to give antibiotic resistance genes to a pathogen. Then the pathogen becomes antibiotic resistant.”

But this news doesn’t mean parents should go on an antibacterial cleaning frenzy. Just the opposite, in fact. The study authors suggest wiping dust with a damp cloth, not with antimicrobial cleaning products—because such products can make bacteria even more resistant to antibiotics.

Dust is definitely worth addressing in the home, though. Beyond bacteria, household dust also commonly contains other harmful chemicals, such as phthalates and flame retardants, which come with serious health hazards—including hormone disruption and toxicity to developing babies and children. So busy parents may want to focus cleaning efforts on simply wiping up dust, rather than the impossible goal of trying to ensure the whole house is spotless and germ-free. And don’t forget that soft surfaces like your couch collect dust, too. Martha Stewart recommends running your hand over upholstered furniture while wearing a rubber glove, which removes dust, along with pet fur and other particles, using static electricity.

If you’re concerned about antibiotic resistance and harmful household chemicals, your best bet is to avoid “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” soaps and cleaning products altogether. Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than other soaps, plus they can fuel antibiotic resistance and worsen the development of allergies and other health problems in children. Despite the aisles and aisles of cleaning options available to us, sometimes the simplest option is the best. Research has shown that other, simpler methods of cleaning—like sucking on a pacifier that fell on the floor before giving it back to the baby—can be more beneficial for our children’s long-term health anyway.


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.