Common Household Dust Might Be Causing People to Gain Weight

“Clean house” might be added to the “eat less, move more” mantra for losing weight, as new research finds common house dust promotes fat production.

Priorities soon may change, because new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology finds that common household dust can cause fat cells to accumulate more triglycerides, or fat.

The problematic components are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are synthetic or naturally occurring compounds that can interfere with, or mimic, a person’s hormones. Since they are in products like frequently used flame retardants, dust from EDCs tends to be prevalent.

“It is not clear at this time which items contribute most to EDC concentrations measured in dust,” senior author Heather Stapleton of Duke University said. “The use of many of these chemicals is considered Confidential Business Information (CBI) and is often not disclosed to the public.”

“What we do know,” she added, “is that furniture, insulation, electronics, and other building components contain these chemicals, and are likely sources for the dust.”

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Stapleton, lead author Christopher Kassotis, and co-author Kate Hoffman made the dust-fat connection after analyzing samples of indoor dust from 11 homes in North Carolina. Extracts from seven of the eleven samples triggered the accumulation of triglycerides, a type of fat, in a lab dish. Extracts from nine samples did even more. They spurred the cells to divide, resulting in a larger amount of precursor fat cells.

Among the forty-four individual common house dust contaminants tested — chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, pesticides, and phenolics — three exhibited the strongest fat-producing effects. They were the pesticide pyraclostrobin, the flame retardant TBPDP, and the commonly used plasticizer DBP.

Prior research on animals suggests that early life exposure to some EDCs can cause weight gain later in life. Some scientists even refer to these ubiquitous chemicals now as “obesogens.”

Stapleton and other researchers believe that EDCs may interact with fetus stem cells and other developing tissues, causing them to develop in a different way than what would normally occur.

“For example,” she said, an EDC “might change the way an adipocyte (fat cell) functions in adulthood.  This might make it easier for these cells to accumulate lipids and lead to greater weight gain in one individual with high exposure during perinatal periods, compared to someone that was not exposed during the perinatal period. However, more research is really needed to understand these long-term effects.”

EDCs are difficult to escape, even if a home seems spotless. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that children consume 50 milligrams (0.002 ounces) of house dust each day. The scientists say that adults unwittingly ingest dust too. Such tiny particles can also be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

“EDC effects can be different depending on how they enter the body, and particularly whether they are metabolized by the liver first,” Stapleton said. “Chemicals that are inhaled, for example, can enter the blood stream and come into contact with our tissues before encountering the liver, whereas chemicals that are ingested pass through the liver first.”

“For some chemicals,” she continued, “metabolism reduces the toxic properties, but for other chemicals, metabolism increases the toxic potential.”

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She encourages consumers to petition for products and materials containing fewer EDCs. Already, due to consumer pressure, the use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture and baby products has been reduced over the last decade. Recently, the anti-microbial chemical triclosan was removed from a number of hand soaps.

Stapleton said, “Regular house cleaning can help reduce exposure to EDCs, particularly if one uses wet mopping or cleaning approaches and not dry approaches, such as dry dusting, which may increase exposure due to resuspension of the particles.”

She added, “We also recommend washing your hands frequently, particularly before you eat, to further reduce exposures to these chemicals.”