Microbes break down chemicals in household dust

– April 29, 2019

American scientists investigated the interaction between common chemicals and microbes in household dust. To their surprise, the microbes proved to be capable of degrading the chemicals, known as phthalates.

Dust full of microbes

Our houses are full of dust, much of which consists of tiny flakes of skin, dirt and microbes. Most microbes are shed from our skin or we track them inside. Phthalates, chemicals that are used in plastic, vinyl and personal care products, among other things, are released as a result of wear and tear on furniture, for example. Researchers at Ohio State University have studied the interaction between microbes and these phthalates. 

Eating phthalates

The researchers collected carpeting and dust from four different homes. They studied these at high humidity, because microbes are more active under such conditions. The microbes were found to degrade the phthalates under these conditions. This surprised the researchers, because it had never been demonstrated before.  


Some phthalates are hazardous to health. At first glance, the fact that microbes can break them down seems like nothing but good news. The researchers had a critical comment, however, as some microbes produce harmful by-products when breaking down chemicals. Moreover, an environment with high humidity is the ideal breeding ground for harmful microbes as well as useful ones. 

Healthier indoor environment

In other words, dust is less innocent than you may have initially thought. The researchers therefore hope that these new insights will lead to a healthier indoor environment in the future. An environment in which the inhabitants are exposed to harmful microbes and phthalates as little as possible.