Dust consists of particles in the atmosphere generated by many different sources and activities. Dust particles vary in size from visible to invisible, which has been directly linked to their potential for causing health problems (Ki-Hyun et al, 2015). The smaller the particle, the longer it stays in the air, and the farther it can travels.

Large dust particles fall out of the air relatively close to where they are created. These particles can be trapped in the nose and mouth when you breathe them in and can be readily breathed out or swallowed harmlessly. You can also see the dust layers things such as; furniture and motor vehicles.

Smaller or fine dust particles on the other hand are invisible, and are more likely to penetrate deeply into the lungs. The ultrafine particles can also be absorbed directly into the blood stream.

Various sources of dusts are;

  • soil
  • dust lifted by weather (an Aeolian process),
  • volcanic eruptions

Dusts in homes, offices, and other human environments contain small amounts of;

  • plant pollen
  • human and animal hairs
  • textile fibers
  • paper fibers
  • minerals from outdoor soil
  • human skin cells (usually found on mattresses, bedding and sofas)
  • burnt meteorite particles
  • Other materials which may be found in the local environment.

However, majority of dust is made up from shed skin cells. This explains why the areas of the home that are mostly used tend to have the most dust.


Types of dust

  • Respirable crystalline silica dust (such as Quartz, cristobalite and tridymite). It occurs mostly in industries and occupations.
  • Inhalable lead or hardwood dusts
  • Fibrous dusts, such as asbestos and other such materials

How can you be affected?

  • Constant exposure to high levels of dust in your homes and environment. The longer you breathe in the dust, the greater your chance of being affected.
  • People with existing respiratory and heart conditions, are at greater risk of developing long-term health problems.
  • Smokers and those constantly exposed to second hand smoke.
  • Individuals with regular experience of shortness of breath or hay-fever.
  • Infants, young children and elderly people can also easily develop health problems from long term exposure to high levels of dust.

However, breathing low levels of household or urban dust does not cause health problems in most individuals.


Health effects of dust

Individuals suffer from a variety of illnesses caused by the dust they inhale in their work, home and environments. Some diseses that may be caused as a result of dust are;

  1. Rhinitis – This is an inflammation of the trachea (tracheitis) or the bronchi (bronchitis) that occurs as a result of an attack of the larger air passages by irritant dust that settles in the nose.
  2. Pneumoconiosis or dusty lung – This is caused majorly by the inhaled dust.
  3. Silicosis – This is a disease where scar tissue forms in the lungs and reduces the ability to extract oxygen from the air. Symptoms of this disease can be acute, accelerated, or chronic.
  4. Systemic intoxication– It occurs as a result of Skin absorption or percutaneous absorption when water-soluble materials dissolve in sweat and passes through the skin into the bloodstream.
  5. Dermatitis – Mostly from Some allergens that act on the skin, including many wood dusts, such as dogwood, poison ivy, mahogany, pine, birch, poison oak, and beech.
  6. Byssinosis – Also referred to as “brown lung” is caused by overexposure to dusts from cotton (mainly in operations such as ginning, carding and spinning), flax, sisal and soft hemp.
  7. Hard metal disease– May occur from overexposure to certain hard metal dusts (such as, cobalt and tungsten carbide) or hard metal-containing dusts. This may lead to a diffuse pulmonary fibrosis, with increasing dyspnea. Severe cases may progress even after cessation of exposure, and this disease is often complicated with occupational asthma.
  8. Allergic reactions– This happens either in the respiratory system (asthma-like), or skin (rashes and eruptions) when a sensitizer induces certain specific cellular changes that further results in an acute allergic reaction on contact, after a period of latency. An example is cobalt; it can cause asthmatic effects, which may be crippling.
  9. Infection (biological hazards) – Inhaling particles that contains fungi, viral or bacterial pathogens may play a role in the transmission of infectious diseases. An example of such disease is; pulmonary anthrax.


Most large particles are stopped in the nose not all of them reach the lungs. It filters and stores them until they are removed mechanically by blowing the nose or sneezing. The lungs also have defense mechanism that protects them by removing some dust particles from the respiratory system. Even though the lungs can clear themselves, excessive inhalation of dust may result in disease.

Causes of dust

  • Industrial emissions.
  • Natural erosion of the soil, sand and rock.
  • Pollen and microscopic organisms.
  • Plant material and dander (dead skin cells shed by animals).
  • Man-made dust usually common in urban areas.

Possible Symptoms/Signs

  • Sneezing.
  • Runny or stuffy nose.
  • Red, itchy or teary eyes.
  • Wheezing.
  • Coughing.
  • Tightness in the chest and shortness of breath.
  • Itchy nose.

Preventive measures

To avoid respiratory or other problems caused by exposure to dust, the following tips should be considered;

  • Replacing hazardous substances with non-hazardous substances
  • Enforcing effective engineering controls to protect workers from over exposure of dust.
  • Constant use of wet processes.
  • Always enclose dust-producing processes under negative air pressure (slight vacuum compared to the air pressure outside the enclosure).
  • You should always exhaust air containing dust through a collection system before emission to the atmosphere.
  • Clean with vacuums instead of brooms.
  • Maintain good housekeeping.
  • Have efficient storage and transport system of waste particles.
  • Controlled disposal of dangerous waste.
  • Wear a facial mask while cleaning (especially dusty areas).
  • Remove wall-to-wall carpets, particularly in your bedroom.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom, and preferably out of the house.
  • Minimize household humidity.
  • Use “mite-proof” cases on mattresses and pillows, and frequently wash bed linens in hot water.
  • Install a high-efficiency media filter in your furnace and air conditioning unit.


Treatment of dust related conditions

After a dust allergy is identified, one or more of the following treatments will be recommend:

  1. Allergy shots or immunotherapy.
  2. Changes to your household routine.

Article By: eDokita Team


  1. Queensland Government. Health and safety effects of dust. 2016.
  2. Ki-Hyun Kim, Ehsanul Kabir and Shamin Kabir. A review on the human health impact of airborne particulate matter. 2015. Vol 74, pages 136-143.
  3. Abdiaziz Yassin, Francis Yebesi, and Rex Tingle. Environmental Health Perspectives: Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica Dust in the United States 1988-2003. Vol 113, number 3. 2005.
  4. Department of health. Safety and first aid: Health effect of dust.
  5. Canadian Centre for occupational health and safety. What are the effects of Dust on the lungs and prevention of occurrence? Web.
  6. Hazard Prevention and Control in the Work Environment: Airborne Dust. WHO/SDE/OEH/99.14. Chapter 2.
  7. com. dust danger. 2009


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