Vacuum dust may do more than make people sneeze. According to a new study, the aerosolized dust vacuum cleaners create contains bacteria and mold that can lead to serious diseases.
The findings, published in the journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, described how researchers found five genes that were resistant to common antibiotics and the Clostridium botulinum toxin gene, which is linked to the infant botulism infection and sudden infant death syndrome.
“Even though no quantitative data are available for antibiotic-resistance gene emission while vacuuming, the observed emission rates for bacteria might suggest that the genetic content of those bacterial cells, including antibiotic resistance genes, may contribute to indoor bioaerosol exposure,” the researchers from the University of Queensland and Laval University said.
Researchers used a special clear air wind tunnel to measure vacuum emission from 21 different devices ranging in quality and age. “That way, we could confidently attribute the things we measured purely to the vacuum cleaner,” study leader Dr. Luke Knibbs of the University of Queensland said.
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The findings were similar to those of earlier studies that showed how human skin and hair bred bacteria and when suspended into the air and inhaled, could cause health problems, Caroline Duchaine, report co-author, said.
While older and cheaper vacuum cleaners have been attributed to releasing more bacteria into the air, experts say it may not be necessary to throw them away.
“For a vacuum to do more harm than good, it has to be a really old vacuum cleaner that has never been cleaned,” Viviana Temino, an assistant professor of allergy and immunology at the University of Miami School of Medicine told Medscape. “In general, most vacuums do take up more dust, dirt and allergens than they release."
HEPA filters, which help weed out fine particles like allergens, are helpful, doctors say. They should be changed regularly, Jeffrey May, principal scientist at May Indoor Air Investigations in Tyngsborough, Mass., said. “Make sure to vacuum under furniture and behind furniture," he advised. "You can't believe the stuff that accumulates there, and this can be an enormous source of allergens.”
More serious conditions, like infant botulism, have been linked to vacuum dust before. The rare disease caused by exposure to Clostridium botulinum can multiply in a baby’s intestines and have life-threatening complications if left untreated. In 2002, an 11-week-old infant died from the disease and it was traced to household dust released by the family’s vacuum cleaner.
Knibbs notes that vacuum cleaners should not be overlooked when seeking causes of certain medical conditions. “Our study demonstrated that vacuum emissions may be a source of bioaerosols that are complex in source, nature and diversity,” the study suggests. “This exposure source is underrepresented in indoor aerosol and bioaerosol assessment and should be considered, especially when assessing cases of allergy, asthma or infectious diseases.”