More than two in three American adults are considered overweight or obese, and experts largely blame that on poor diet and a lack of physical activity. But research from Duke University points to another potential factor, especially for children: household dust. Looks like it's time to grab the vacuum.
Specifically, researchers found that dust contains a range of environmental pollutants called endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs. EDCs, as the name suggests, can disrupt your endocrine, or hormone, system — a system that's responsible for bodily processes ranging from reproduction to immunity to neurological function. Some studies, however, have also suggested that EDC exposure early in life can cause weight gain later.
For a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers collected samples of dust from 11 North Carolina homes, and tested extracts from them on a type of mouse precursor fat cell that's commonly used to test the effects of chemicals on fat production. Extracts from seven of the 11 samples made the cells turn into fully grown fat cells and start accumulating triglycerides, the most common type of fat in the body. Even worse, extracts from nine of the samples made those precursor cells divide, creating a stockpile of even more cells that could turn into mature fat cells.
In all, they tested 44 chemicals commonly found in everyday dust. The worst offenders? The pesticide pyraclostrobin, the flame retardant TBPDP, and the plasticizer DBP. Those three had the most dramatic effects on fat production, and exposure to a mix of them could be even worse. The EPA estimates that children consume around 50 milligrams of dust every day, and the study found that even 3 micrograms was enough to have a measurable effect.
What You Can Do
So how do you protect yourself? It might sound obvious, but keep your house clean. Senior author Heather Stapleton tells Seeker that wet wiping and mopping is better than dry dusting, since the latter can actually increase your dust exposure. "We also recommend washing your hands frequently, particularly before you eat, to further reduce exposures to these chemicals."
In the long run, though, it will probably take manufacturers removing EDCs from their products to really make a difference. Both the E.U. and the U.S. are taking steps to identify and regulate these chemicals, and pressure from consumers — both actively and through your choices at the store — can only help.