Could Household Dust Be Contributing to Obesity?

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You might be able to sweep and scrub your way to a healthy weight, but it’s not the physical activity that will trim your belly fat — it’s getting rid of dangerous levels of dust.

That’s right — dust. Scientists from Duke University have found that high levels of dust are associated with unhealthy layers of body fat, according to findings published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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Lurking within the ever-present dust that floats around your house and accumulates everywhere are potentially harmful organic chemicals, which researchers say can disrupt the body’s normal metabolic mechanisms, driving up rates of obesity along the way.

“Recently, attention has focused on the potential for environmental contaminants to act as metabolic disruptors,” write the Duke University researchers.

Chemicals found in consumer goods and substances such as flame retardants and pesticides are ubiquitous within people’s homes, report the study authors. These chemicals can elevate levels of adipogenic activity, or a predisposition to weight gain, they note.

For the current study, the researchers took samples of regular household dust collected from 11 homes in North Carolina. Upon analysis, they discovered that the dust contained as many as 44 contaminants, including many endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which can skew hormone levels.

Then they exposed the dust samples to mouse-derived fat cells, which are often used in experiments to assess the behavior of triglyceride accumulation, which signals fat build-up.

Related: Pets Bring Beneficial Bacteria Into Homes

Seven of the 11 samples caused the cells to accumulate triglycerides, while nine samples resulted in a proliferation of total fat cells.

“Only one of 11 dust samples appeared completely inactive, suggesting that the causative chemical(s) are nearly ubiquitous in the indoor environment,” report the study authors. Just one sample had no effect on the fat cells.

“This suggests that the mixture of these chemicals in house dust is promoting the accumulation of triglycerides and fat cells,” said fellow study author Dr. Heather Stapleton, associate professor of Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Environmental Management at Duke.

Perhaps more disturbing is that only miniscule traces of chemicals within the dust triggered fat-engendering effects.

“We were most surprised by how low the concentrations were that we saw having an effect,” said lead author Dr. Christopher Kassotis, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke.

Related: Exposure to Flame Retardant Chemicals Linked to Aggressive Behavior in Children

The harmful impact of EDCs is especially worrisome for children, who are most likely to be affected by hormone disruption. Pregnant women and adolescents also face an increased risk because of the growth stages they’re involved in.

“Amounts of dust as low as 3 micrograms – well below the mass of dust that children are exposed to daily – caused measurable effects,” said Stapleton.

Given the low amounts deemed to have an impact, the study calls into question current public health guidelines related to chemical exposure, especially among children.

“The adipogenic activity in house dust occurred at concentrations below [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] estimated child exposure levels, and raises concerns for human health impacts, particularly in children,” write the authors.

Previous estimates from the EPA suggest children may have direct exposure to more than 50 milligrams of dust per day.

Flame retardants are found in common household objects, such as sofas and carpets, and other EDCs are found in many products containing plastic.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.