11/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dust Becomes You

This post was first published on Healthy Child Healthy World.

Anyone who's lived in or visited arid regions is probably familiar with dust storms. When the air is filled with tiny particles of sand that bite your skin, sting your eyes and irritate your lungs. Over time, breathing all that dust can cause chronic lung and respiratory problems, so public health officials have established guidelines to help people prevent long-term impacts.

But there's a silent, subtle dust storm happening in your house every day. And the assault from this storm is much more invasive, although, ironically, much less recognized.

Many of the products inside your home, and the materials used to make the building itself, are slowly degrading and breaking down over time in small, microscopic particles. And, over time, what's in them, becomes a part of your household dust. And then, they become a part of you. As you sleep with your face buried in a pillow, inhaling and exhaling for hours every night. When you drink from a glass that's been collecting dust in the cupboard. While you relax on your couch, watching TV and eating chips.

You are eating and breathing dust. It is in your body. It is in your blood.

So what? Seems like a perfectly natural fact of life, right? Well, yes, it is -- kind of -- other than the ubiquity of synthetic chemicals and heavy metals in the dust. This subtle indoor storm of microscopic particles is laden with chemicals and heavy metals that were used to make the wonderful products you are surrounded by every day. Sometimes, these risky ingredients were added because we didn't know they posed a risk. Sometimes they were added because manufacturers believed they would be "locked" into the product.

But, they aren't locked in. At least, they aren't locked in to the products they're supposed to be in. Many of them are lipophilic -- meaning they cling to fat. So, once they get into your body, they find the fat and then become temporarily locked in to you (some for a few decades, at which point they'll find their way out and contaminate some other unsuspecting creature).

As we move closer to re-visiting the Toxic Substances Control Act, the outdated policy regulating the majority of chemicals used in everyday products, it's imperative that we address the insidious nature of many synthetic chemicals. The chemical industry has already come forward saying, they, too, want to see TSCA reformed. They want to re-invigorate trust with consumers who have become increasingly concerned about questionable chemicals; they want their products to be safe. Or, so they say.

If you read the fine print, what industry is hoping for are regulations that ensure chemicals are safe.... "for their intended use." This qualification does nothing to address the quagmire we are in. A chemical could be "safe" when it's locked into our couches, as was intended. But, what about once it leaks out and becomes a part of our environments and our bodies? And this will inevitably happen. Whether it breaks down while we are directly using it in our homes or it breaks down in a landfill and then ends up in groundwater, soil, or air. These chemicals become a part of our interconnected life system. They need to be safe for so much beyond "their intended use."

In Paul Hawken's enlightening book "Blessed Unrest," he discusses Buckminster Fuller's analogy of the Earth being a spaceship -- so well designed that its inhabitants haven't even recognized it's a spaceship. Hawken uses the concept for corporate training. On one especially memorable occasion, he asked the engineers from a large agricultural chemical company to design a spaceship that could leave Earth and return 100 years later with its crew alive, happy, and healthy. The winning design consisted of the following:

"Instead of bringing caches of DVDs and display screens for onboard entertainment, they decided that a significant proportion of the passengers should be artists, musicians, actors, and storytellers. To endure for one century, the passengers needed to create a culture rather than simply consume one. They brought onboard a large variety of weeds, not just useful seeds, to enliven the soils and bring minerals to the surface. They brought mycorrhizae and other fungi, bacteria, insects, and small animals -- everything their company poisoned on earth for a profit. (The company's number-one product was a pesticide). Of the several thousand products this company made, none were invited along on the trip. The designers realized they were too toxic to be released in a small environment..."

Whether we are creating products whose dust becomes a part of the small environments we call our homes, or whose dust becomes a part of the larger environment we call Earth, we need to be designing for comprehensive safety. Don't be fooled by anything less.