Fighting the good fight as dust bunnies multiply
Research suggests that the world is getting dustier. What can we do to cope?
The New York Times
NEW YORK — The world has a dust problem. There is more of it than there used to be. Apparently, the amount of airborne dust doubled in the 20th century, according to a recent scientific paper in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.
The claim sounds outlandish. The amount of dust in the world — like the amount of sin or acne — must be a constant. The finding was somewhat surprising even to Natalie Mahowald, the lead researcher on the study and an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Cornell University.
Although she was working with inchoate historical data, Mahowald said, "Nobody has come up to me and said, 'I don't believe you.' " Climate change seems to be one source for all the new dust. Human land use is another. Anyone looking for a scapegoat — and that's all of us, isn't it? — can start with the droughts and desertification in North Africa, she said.
Alternately, I asked, have researchers considered the possibility that the dust might have come from under my bed? Recently, my wool Schlitz hat fell down there. When I retrieved it, the hat had grown a full, gray rabbinical beard.
"That doesn't have anything to do with it," Mahowald said, without even pausing to consider my hypothesis. Her study didn't measure dust from human sources, like our burping tailpipes and pilling sweaters, she explained. "Dust is such a vague term. I'm being very particular here: soil particles suspended in the atmosphere."
Mahowald seemed to have her hands full figuring out what all that dust might do to the earth's oceans and climate. Academia can be petty that way.
So I compiled my own advisory panel of lay experts. They were people who live in white apartments and people who collect books by the myriad. The future is looking like a dustier place, I said. What can we do to prepare?
We could start by closing the windows, said Jane Novick, who lives on the fourth floor of a prewar building on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park. The buses and taxis crawl by all the time, she said. Except, that is, when they are idling.
"My husband tries to open the window," said Novick, 62, who volunteers at a pediatric hospital in Manhattan and is active on its board. "I say, unh-unh."
When dust gets inside — and it always does — it's easy to spot. The Novicks have been working with the designer Vicente Wolf for 25 years. And his pale palette can create a blank canvas for dust.
The 4,000-square-foot apartment isn't all white. There is some cream and beige, too, Novick said, and a celadon-colored couch. But even worse for camouflage is the herringbone floor, which is stained ebony.
"You clean constantly, but not crazily," Novick said. Granted, one person's constant is another person's crazy. "Maybe I have more DustBusters than other people," she added. "I usually have a DustBuster in almost every room."
The Novicks employ a regular house cleaner, she said. But "I must DustBust every day — that, I will admit. Sometimes a couple of times a day."
All that cleaning can have an unintended consequence: Oddly enough, it actually breeds dust. In fact, cleaning is one of the three main sources of household dust, according to research on indoor particles. Cooking is the second; movement is the third.
Every step disturbs tiny particles of dirt, fiber, soot, pollen, paint, food and dead skin. In common parlance, it's all dust, said Richard Flagan, the chairman of the chemical engineering department at the California Institute of Technology. As soon as these motes lift off a carpet (or a TV remote or a ukulele), "you induce air currents" that propel them around the room, he said.
Several thousand particles of this stuff will waft in any cubic centimeter of air, a space the size of a sugar cube. We travel through life emitting what scientists call "a personal cloud" of dust. The only alternative is death, which is actually worse — what with the whole "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" thing.
Editing out clutter
Novick has learned to live with her dust. She has edited her possessions: the books, photos and travel mementos.
"You scale down as time goes on," she said. A clean house is easier to clean.
The Brooklyn-based design blogger Tina Roth Eisenberg (http://www.swiss-miss.com/) makes the case for cleanliness in aesthetic terms. "Dust is not a problem for the minimalist," she said.
Working under the name "swissmiss," the 37-year-old graphic artist favors plenty of white space. The same rule applies to her condo in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, which Eisenberg shares with her husband and two young children.
Visitors to the apartment, she said, "Say, wait a minute where's your stuff?"
Eisenberg's secret? Being a "minimalist in the living room," she said, means being a "maximalist" in the closet. It's a honeycomb in there, though space might be tight for a bee. (Eisenberg describes herself as "the unofficial spokesperson for the Elfa system" of storage from the Container Store.)
For her, cleaning is not so much an activity as a state of being. She remembers having a no-mess childhood in a small town in Switzerland. Her mother ran an orderly home, she said, while working full time. When one of the family's au pairs lagged in her housekeeping, Eisenberg's mother sent her a gentle reminder.
"She wrote with her finger" on the dust that had gathered atop the grand piano in the parlor, Ms. Eisenberg recalled, leaving a single Swiss-German word, "sau." Or in translation: pig.
He's not collecting dust
James Kaston received his own childhood training in what to do with objects: collect them. Kaston started with his grandfather's Indian arrowheads, unearthed at the family farm on the Hudson River. By age 9, he was tagging along with his grandmother to auctions.
Kaston, 53, still has the arrowheads — and 1,001 other artifacts — stacked up in a three-room Stuyvesant Town apartment in Manhattan. Naturally, he works in the antiques business. Perhaps 100 paintings hang, salon-style, on the walls. And he has covered the floor — a parquet that reminded him of "a dentist's waiting room" — with Oriental carpets that date back to the 1880s.
In Kaston's estimation, a crowded home is a comfortable home. "Those minimal places look like prisons to me," he said. Kaston's apartment, by contrast, resembles one giant cabinet of wonders.
Yet the real marvel may be its condition. The place is clean.
"People who come to my house are always absolutely shocked," Kaston said. "They say, 'Where's the dust?' And then they say, 'You must have someone who comes around here and cleans all the time.' "
Kaston used to employ a house cleaner, he said. But she was a menace to the apartment's permanent collection. "She broke a beautiful 19th-century transferware bouillon cup," he said. "She broke a 19th-century Aesthetic Movement fish platter."
Each time, Kaston added, "she kept saying they flung themselves off the wall." His housekeeper was a lovely person, he said. "But eventually I said to her — and I said it to her three times — 'No more dusting for you. Leave the dusting to me.' "
A jacket for a dustjacket
The best defense against dust, Mr. Kaston has found, is a tight glass case. And so he has staged vignettes out of his "curiosities" — like a taxidermied turtle and a monkey skull — in 10 different antique cabinets.
Yet to show these objects to the best effect, the "glass needs to be a little sparkly and shiny," he said. And that means more dusting.
The term "dustjacket" is typically written as one word, said Bryan A. Garner, editor in chief of "Black's Law Dictionary" and author of "Garner's Modern American Usage." He would know. The 52-year-old keeps a personal library of 31,000 volumes — or 31,100 if you count the titles he has bought in the last two weeks.
In recent years, Garner has begun wrapping his dustjackets in their own clear Mylar dustjackets. This precaution would seem to be the equivalent of washing soap with soap. So far, some 20,000 of his books have been Mylared. "I'm typically one who is reluctant to make proper nouns into verbs," he said. "But this is certainly a very convenient one, and we do it."
Garner stores most of his collection at the offices of his company, LawProse, including dictionaries and grammar books that date from 1491. A mere 4,500 volumes reside with him and his wife, Karolyne Garner, at their French Country Revival-style home in north Dallas.
The most effective dust management starts before a book ever reaches the shelf. "When I buy a book, I will carefully open it and slam it shut several times," he said. "Sometimes these big balloons of dust will cascade to the floor." This is where dust belongs, he said, down at vacuum level. Next, "you sort of riffle the pages." Finally, he will run a dry paintbrush along the edges.
As protocols go, it's a good one, Garner said. Yet at the same time he is dusting his books, many thousands of them are actually turning to dust. Acid paper, which was ubiquitous between 1870 and 1970, "tends to self-destruct," he said.
There can be a gloom to antiquarian book collecting — the authors are dead, we are dying — and the dust doesn't help. Garner likes to place musty books of questionable provenance in the sun to cure. And he opens the windows and airs out the house every fortnight, preferably after a good rain has knocked down the dust outside.
He discovered this advice in Cheryl Mendelson's "Home Comforts," he said, "which is my favorite book on housekeeping."
Garner hesitated for a moment, as if picturing the book on the shelf. "It's been a long time since I read it," he said. "Mine is probably gathering a little bit of dust."
MAKING A DIFFERENCE? OR NOT?
How does dust fall on a bookshelf? Slowly. Very slowly.
A piece of dust that is 100 microns in diameter — the size of a dot of chalk powder — will fall about a foot a second, said Richard Flagan, chairman of the chemical engineering program at the California Institute of Technology. A mote that is one micron in diameter — the size of a bacteria — will fall just 30 microns a second. And many of the particles created by cooking, which is a leading source of indoor dust, measure less than half a micron across.
Where does dust this small go? Anywhere it wants. Trying to herd it into a dustpan is either an act of hubris or a clown routine. Might as well try to snare a moth with a hula hoop.
Given these absurdities of scale, cleaning will inevitably scatter dust around the room. Still, the forces of chemistry and physics can help.
There may be no more primitive dusting tool than a damp cloth. You will not see it advertised on late-night TV. But that doesn't mean it won't work. "The reason that you use a wet cloth rather than a dry cloth," Flagan said, "is the liquid introduces capillary forces."
The dust will bond to the wet surface, he said. "And then the particle doesn't want to pull off."
As a form of chemical attachment, the connection between dust and rag is more a hookup than a marriage. All commitments are off when the cloth dries. Maybe the dust stays, maybe it goes.
The concept behind a vacuum cleaner isn't difficult to understand. The nozzle sucks air into a filter medium or a bag. "Some of the dust strikes the filters and sticks, and some strikes other particles and sticks."
Then there is the considerable amount of dust that doesn't stick to anything. A spinning brush may send small particles in a kind of appliance thrill ride. And while the vacuum nozzle inhales, the vents exhale. A HEPA filter, with its fine fabric grates, should capture petite-yet-nasty particles — the ones that wear size 0, so to speak.
As for those newfangled bagless vacuums with their racy cyclonic action? Flagan contends that a centrifugal windstorm won't capture smaller particles, except by dumb luck. That said, on the filth-mats that we call carpets, "a lot of the stuff is big aggregates," he said. For that, "they're pretty good."
That leaves the great enigma of modern housekeeping, the Swiffer. How does it work? Magic, of course. Also, Flagan said, a Swiffer happens to be an example of an electret, a fabric manufactured with "an intrinsic surface charge." Rub it against a baseboard and its static charge will attract dust.
Will any of these methods, judiciously applied, make a difference in the amount of household dust? This may not be a question of physical science, but a riddle of human nature. As an experiment, spend 10 minutes dusting, then look around. Is the room half-clean or half-dirty?
— MICHAEL TORTORELLO
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.