We are surrounded by itty-bitty ickiness. It is our dust. And our dust is us.

Which is no compliment.Household dust is a breakdown of our lives - a microscopic mix of skin cells, sneezed viruses, pet dander, soil, clothing fibers, carpet fragments, mold, bacteria and insect parts.

It is, said dust expert/chemist Armin Clobes, very personal stuff.

"When you look at dust you can tell if a person has pets, if you live in an urban or rural home, if you live near a busy street, if you use a wood-burning fireplace, if you burned a pie in the oven, what you had for dinner," Clobes said in a telephone interview from Racine, Wis.

Clobes is a senior research associate for SC Johnson Wax, which makes dust-fighting products like Pledge. His job is not to push or test products but to study dust itself - to find out more about this coating that clings to our TV screens, bookcases, miniblinds and carpeting. In his quest for dust knowledge, he uses a scanning electron microscope, lasers and chemical analysis.

Indoor dust should not be confused with the same powdery dirt you stir up outside, he said. Household dust is much more complicated.

There's a lot of daily destruction going on in a home - dirt tracked in, carpet fibers scrunched, bugs smashed, firewood burned. There's shedding too . . . and it's not all coming from Fluffy and Fido. Hair, dandruff and skin particles constantly slough off people.

"I've seen estimates that just sitting there, I can shed about 400,000 particles a minute," Clobes said.

All this shedding and shredding creates a medley of wee particles that delicately floats through the air. Eventually, being heavier than air, it settles as dust. Left alone, dust can morph into something even more disgusting.

"It can take on a life of its own. With the right humidity and temperature conditions, mold and bacteria will grow and that little clump of dust will create its own dust cloud," Clobes explained.

Mold, bacteria, skin cells, dirt . . . Oh, did we mention dust mites?

Smaller than a speck of salt and with an unsettling resemblance to something extraterrestrial, these tiny eight-legged creatures dine on discarded skin. Clobes said they especially enjoy moldy skin.

Not a pretty sight. But the real issue with dust is not its repulsiveness but its riskiness. Inhaling all these little nasties can make you sneeze, wheeze or trigger severe problems.

People who have the genetic makeup for allergies often have a problem with dust, according to Dr. Ronald Renard, an allergist in Redding, Calif.

Dust allergy symptoms include congestion, chronic headaches, fatigue, sinus infections, sore throat or asthma, Renard said. Fecal droppings from dust mites are often the culprit, he said. Each mite leaves behind about 20 pellets a day, according to Clobes.

While mites are not in all homes, homes that do have them may have hundreds of thousands. They live in dust, carpeting, chairs and bedding, Renard said.

So what to do about this mix of minuscule madness?

Well, for one thing, don't just sit there shedding, get up and dust.

Clobes said it is important to keep on top of dusting so the dust won't generate mold and bacteria. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health indicates those who clean more often have fewer allergenic materials in their household dust, he said.


Additional Information

Do battle against dust - and disgusting dust mites

The following dust-fighting tips are from SC Johnson Wax:

- Don't dry-dust. It stirs up dust and sends it back into the air.

- Don't reuse a dirty dust cloth. Replace or wash the dust cloth after each use.

- Clean knickknacks frequently. They are notorious dust collectors.

- Vacuum upholstered furniture regularly.

- Clean air ducts and the furnace annually.

- Wash bed linens in water that's 130 degrees.

- Wipe dust off houseplant leaves with a damp cloth.

- Keep house humidity low - 40 percent to 50 percent. Use exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathrooms to reduce humidity.