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Highlights in Chemical Science

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Is folding laundry bad for your health?

10 July 2007

Levels of laundry detergent particles found in house dust are 'close to the margins of safety', say scientists in Sweden.

Anders Gudmundsson at Lund University and colleagues have systematically studied the source, amount and type of airborne particles, which are greater than half a micrometre in size, found in house dust.  

'It is estimated that we spend more than 80% of our time inside buildings and increasing attention is being paid to the effects of indoor airborne particles on public health', said team member Mats Bohgard. 'Our aim is to develop methodology for identifying particle sources that contribute to dust problems in buildings.'


Folded laundry and zeolite particles

Zeolite particles could be a hidden health risk in house dust


The Swedish study involved three similar households, two of which had complained of high dust levels. Inhabitants were asked to keep a diary of activities while airborne particle size and concentration were measured throughout the house.

The researchers found that the amount of airborne particles in all of the houses fluctuated throughout the day, but they tended to peak in the dusty houses when the residents were making the bed or folding laundry.  The team identified the particles as zeolites - porous inorganic materials.

According to Gudmundsson, zeolites have increasingly been replacing phosphates as softening agents over the last two decades, and about one million tons of zeolites are used worldwide in laundry detergents every year. And in fact, the two dusty households used laundry detergents containing zeolites, while the third, less dusty household did not. 

For the most common detergent zeolite, the lowest adverse effect level has been determined to be one milligram per cubic metre. Gudmundsson's study concludes that for the two households using zeolite containing detergents, the airbone particle levels were approaching the margins of safety and could imply a potential health risk for the major part of the population that uses these detergents.

Michele Zgraggen

Link to journal article

Methodology for identifying particle sources in indoor environments
A. Gudmundsson, J. Löndahl and M. Bohgard, J. Environ. Monit., 2007, 9, 831
DOI: 10.1039/b708731b