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Dust research is a lot like an archaeologist on a dig. The layers of dust can reveal the past history of a something as large as a nation or as small as your house. Through complex analysis of dust contents dust researchers have found amazing things about the ground we live on, our environmental footprint, and our health.
Despite how clear the air looks, there is literally tons of dust raining down on us daily. Much of the air we breathe is loaded with dust that comes from not just the ground around us, but travels from far away deserts. The main dust producers on Earth are the Saharan and Gobi deserts. The Saharan desert dust is able to cross the Atlantic Ocean and deposit its dust on the Caribbean islands. So much dust has been deposited that the main component of soil in the Caribbean is Saharan desert dust.
Outdoor dust in the U.S. is composed of numerous things you would not expect. Dust and pollution from Asia often blanket the west coast. Kansas soil produces tons of dust every year. Have you ever wondered where your tire tread goes as your tires wear down? It becomes dust to the tune of 25,000 tons a year, not including the 35,000 tons of brake pad that is used to stop those tires. Finally, lets not forget fungal spores and pollen. They are two of the largest components of dust, as people with asthma and allergies will attest to.
Dust can often negatively affect our health. It’s usually the super small dust that can’t be seen that affects our health. Asbestos is a microscopic dust that kills through lung and stomach diseases. Silica (quartz dust) causes silicosis. Egyptians mummies have been found suffering of silicosis from desert sand. Today, silicosis is in the U.S. is found among sandblasters, masons, and cement mixers. Coal dusts causes black lung disease. Even less known dust problems include fevers, lung disease, asthma, or death found in bakers (from flour), cotton workers, potters, wood workers, people who work with animals (including ranchers, laboratory technicians, and cat and dog owners), straw bailers, and garbage men to name a few. Is anyone safe?.
You may think that your home is a safe haven from dust, but not so. Much of the dust, including industrial dust, found in outdoor air can be found inside your home.Houses can actually build up dust levels much higher than the outside. We are building tighter and tighter homes that restrict air exchange, which can dilute dust in the air, and helps build moisture levels that lead to pest and mold growth. The chemicals we use to treat pests are often tracked inside homes on the bottom of shoes. Pesticides can linger inside a home much longer than they would outside because they are not exposed to the elements that break them down.
Holmes spends some time addressing the increasing presence of asthma and allergy in children. Tighter houses, which increases mold and pest dusts, is one possibility. Strangely, not enough dust is also a possibility because the immune system never learns to handle dust properly. It’s also possible that children don’t go outside and play enough to strengthen their bodies. Evidence for all three exists, but there is no smoking gun. This book was published in 2001 and a quick look at the research shows that not much has changed in the last 17 years. We are still not exactly sure of the reason for the increase in asthma and allergies. However, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology cases of childhood asthma decreased slightly after 2010.
Overall, The Secret Life of Dust is a fascinating microscopic look at the air around us. Full of interesting facts, this book is sure to please the non-fiction aficionado.