Is dust biodegradable? (5 impacts of dust on human health) 

In this article, it shall be explored if dust is biodegradable. Other related aspects of topics will also be discussed including: 

  • What is dust?
  • What is the chemistry of dust?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • Is biodegradable the same as eco-friendly?
  • What is the effect of dust on human health?
  • What is the effect of dust on the environment?
  • FAQs

Is dust biodegradable? 

Yes, dust is biodegradable because it mostly contains naturally occurring material such as microbes, smoke ash, sand, small parts of dirt or rock, particles of animal and human skin et cetera.

However, despite being biodegradable, dust causes a lot of harmful effects on human health and the environment. This is because of the chemistry of substances that make up dust at the molecular level. 

The analysis of dust can also enable scientists to know what pollutants are usually found in a particular area to let them counter the pollution. 

What is dust?

In order to truly understand the deliberations presented in the article, it is important to first acquaint yourself with the basic question of what is dust in the first place?

Chances are you have heard this word all through your life but ask yourself do you really know what dust is at a molecular level? More than that, have you ever wondered if dust is dangerous to you or your environment. 

These milestones shall be approached by first stepping on the start line of the basic introduction of dust. 

Dust is a collection of microscopic particles of material. It is heavy enough to be seen and observed but simultaneously light enough to be transported by wind. 

This leads us to the next very important question. What is dust made of? Dust is made up of various particles such as microbes, smoke ash, sand, small parts of dirt or rock, particles of animal and human skin et cetera.

The dust particles that are mentioned are also termed to be particulate matter (PM). PM is one of the most pressing air pollution challenges all around the globe. 

Simply put, dust in itself is a world but just at a molecular level. You might be wondering how scientists observe and analyse dust. Dust is studied or analysed through a variety of approaches. 

These approaches include earth-based collections, and studies through infrared devices. Molecular devices such as microscopy may also be employed to delve deep into the matter and reality of dust.

What are the types of dust?

Before moving forward, it is important to know the various types of dust that are present in the atmosphere and the environment. There are three classes of dust. These are: 

  • Low-risk class 
  • Medium risk class
  • High-risk class 

As per some research, the types of dust may be: 

  • Mineral dust 
  • Metallic dust 
  • Chemical dust 
  • Organic or vegetable dust 
  • Coal dust 
  • Asbestos dust 

You may be wondering which of these poses the most threat to the environment. Think no further. As per research, asbestos dust is the most harmful dust to the environment and humans. 

What is the chemistry of dust?

It is argued that the reality of dust is as fervent as the rising moon or advancing Andromeda galaxy. We have already seen that dust contains a whole variety of materials but just at microscopic levels. 

These materials may be skin particles of either humans or animals, pollens, soil particles, microbes (usually bacteria) and small versions of plastics.

With the word of plastics, you may have already speculated that dust might not be good for humans and certainly not for the environment. Details of this aspect shall be excavated in the coming sections of the article. 

Insights from literature reveal that the current understanding regarding the composition of dust is just the tip of the iceberg. In the last few years, new technology has been developed which is termed non-targeted analysis. 

Non-targeted analysis has revealed that dust and in particular household dust is far from inert. It contains various elements that pose live, organic risks to nature and man. These chemicals or compounds can be chlorinated paraffin, azodyes and nonylphenol ethoxylates. 

Recent scientific endeavours have also made use of approaches such as HPLC (High-Performance Liquid Chromatography) and Ultra high-resolution mass spectrometry. These approaches enable scientists to delve deep into the matter of dust. 

However, as it is said that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud; this very not-so-inert composition of dust particles has enabled scientists to study what potential pollutants subside in a particular setting so those counter mechanisms can be engaged. 

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as the ability to be degraded in nature so that complex substances can be converted into simpler substances so that they may become a part of nature. 

Biodegradability is the earth’s natural way to discard and dispose of. Microbes such as bacteria and other decomposers are the main drivers of this degradation process. 

If the natural process of biodegradation is not happening, then it means that wastes are produced and not disposed of. Imagine what would happen if all the waste of your home is kept inside and not thrown in the dust bin?

It will pollute your house from the inside, right? The same would happen if the natural process of biodegradation does not happen for some reason. However, this hypothetical metaphor does have some ground reality, unfortunately.

Not all the material produced is able to biodegrade in nature. Most of the man-made synthetic materials (such as polymers) do not gel well with the microbes’ ability to degrade and thus these substances remain in the environment causing unfathomable pollution and problems. 

With the human population swiftly advancing to cross the carrying capacity of the earth, the management of waste is becoming more difficult than ever. That is why the checklist of if any substance is biodegradable or not is of high importance because otherwise, there is no way out. 

To put things into perspective, take an example of non-biodegradable plastics. These plastics affect hundred of species, endangering them. They also stem medical complications of all severities. The environmental impacts of plastics are also notoriously well known. 

Is biodegradable the same as environmentally friendly?

No, biodegradable is not the same as eco-friendly. A product or substance can be biodegradable but still can cause harm to the environment. 

An example can be that of drywall mud. Drywall mud is mostly made from gypsum which is a naturally occurring mineral. Gypsum is biodegradable but it also releases harmful gases in the process of degradation. 

These gases can be sulphur dioxide or hydrogen sulphide which are toxic to both man and the environment. Therefore, it is important to note that just because a product is labelled as biodegradable, it does not necessarily mean that it is safe for humans and the environment. 

Is dust biodegradable?

After exploring some basic terminologies associated with dust biodegradability, let us move on to the main question that is: Is dust biodegradable? 

Yes, dust is biodegradable because most of it contains naturally occurring substances at the molecular level. These may be parts of animal or human skin, pollens, debris et cetera. These substances can be degraded by the action of microbes in short spans of time. 

However, recent research has also unveiled that dust may also contain (in particular household dust or dust from industrial areas) non-biodegradable substances like polymers. These particles are not biodegradable. 

To summarise, dust may contain naturally occurring particles as well as synthetic particles. Naturally occurring particles can degrade whereas synthetic particles may not degrade. However, dust mostly contains naturally occurring particles and hence it can be said that dust is biodegradable. 

What is the effect of dust on human health?

Dust contains a number of substances that have detrimental impacts on human health at both physical and psychological levels. Some of the major impacts of dust on humans include: 

  • Lungs infection 
  • Coughing 
  • Difficulty in breathing 
  • Asthma
  • Heart attacks and strokes 

It is said that dust is also responsible for a lung-related disease termed hypersensitivity pneumonitis which makes a person allergic to dust and may give off mild to extreme symptoms when exposed to dust. 

Another interesting fact related to dust and human health is that dust is also responsible for the world’s largest disease name: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. 

Recent technological advances have also unveiled that dust is also responsible for other medical complications too such as endocrine disruptions, hormonal imbalance, nervous system toxicity,  cancer and reproductive complications.

What is the effect of dust on the environment? 

Among the stood out impacts of dust on the environment, there are: 

  • Soil erosion 
  • Decreased photosynthesis 
  • Reduction in crop yields
  • Loss of plant tissue
  • Alteration of natural weather patterns
  • Decreasing the Air Quality Index
  • Smog formation 
  • Toxication of the atmosphere 

Proceeding from our general understanding of what dust is (consortium of particles at the molecular level); it is edified that dust poses a number of harmful effects on the environment as well. 

The dust particles affect the natural climatic patterns leading to rise in unprecedented weather patterns. These unprecedented weather patterns impact life at all levels. Examples may include increased drought or flooding, and loss of vegetation and farmland. The results are far stretching. 

Dust is also linked to damage to plant life in a variety of ways. The particles present in the dust cause disruptions in plant biology ultimately affecting vegetative plants as well. 

The particulate matter (PM) is linked to decreasing and deteriorating air quality which is connected with smog formation as well. Smog is linked to rising medical complications by manifolds. 

As claimed by some researchers, smog affects as many as 3 billion people worldwide which accounts to more than 40% of the world’s population. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that dust is usually made from naturally occurring material including pollen, parts of animal or human skin, microbes, smoke-ash, sand et cetera. Due to this, it can be said that dust is biodegradable. 

However, it does not really mean that dust is not harmful to human health and the environment. A lot of research has been cited that asserts one conclusion only: dust has detrimental impacts on both human health and the environment. 

A plethora of negative impacts of dust were reviewed on both human health and the environment and the underlying chemistry behind these effects were also assessed. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is dust biodegradable? 

Which type of dust is the most harmful?

There are many types of dust; however, asbestos dust is the most harmful. That is majorly because asbestos is linked to cancer and many other serious health issues. 

Does dust only contain natural material?

Initially, it was thought that dust only contained natural materials and particles like sand, pollens et cetera. Recent research featuring HPLC and spectrometry has unveiled that dust also contains synthetic materials like polymer particles. 

References 

  • Terradellas, E., Nickovic, S., & Zhang, X. Y. (2015). Airborne dust: a hazard to human health, environment and society. Boletín-Organización Meteorológica Mundial, 64(2), 44-48.
  • Pelley, Janet. (February 7, 2017). Tracing the chemistry of household dust. Retrieved from: https://cen.acs.org/articles/95/i7/Tracing-chemistry-household-dust.html
  • Raza, W., Saeed, S., Saulat, H., Gul, H., Sarfraz, M., Sonne, C., … & Kim, K. H. (2021). A review on the deteriorating situation of smog and its preventive measures in Pakistan. Journal of Cleaner Production, 279, 123676.

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