Microplastics in Household Dust Can Lead to Antibiotic Resistance


Nov 12, 2021


Image Credit: Getty

A new analysis of microplastics revealed some disquieting results. We should be concerned about their presence not only in our oceans, water, or food but even in the dust inside our homes.

Microorganisms frequently break down plastics in the ocean, and scientists have found these colonies to be associated with antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs). Researchers from Nankai University in China extended this to the dust found in an average home, to hypothesize that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be making a safe harbor in people’s houses, where plastic accumulates as dust.

The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, analyzed dust samples collected from ten homes housing single male tenants. They found 21 types of microplastics, of which polyester and nylon were common sources. They also found 18 genes in bacteria in the dust that were associated with antibiotic resistance.

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Members of the same phylum of bacteria from those that are found in ocean plastics were found in household dust, suggesting that there is a pattern we should be concerned about.

Interestingly, dust with microplastics hosted different colonies of bacteria than dust without microplastics. They also found that antibiotic-resistant genes were more abundant in the presence of more microplastics.

One theory about why this could be is that the plastics themselves are driving an antibiotic-resistant trait in the bacteria. Another is that bacteria that are already more resistant are somehow drawn to the microplastics.

“In addition to the plastisphere in water and soil environments, MPs in an indoor environment may also affect the bacterial community and specifically enrich ARGs. Moreover, degradable MPs and nondegradable MPs may result in different health hazards due to their distinct effects on bacterial community,” the paper states.

Microplastics in household dust is not a brand new concern, but antibiotic-resistant bacteria are. Even without this bacteria, microplastics in homes pose significant health challenges. They can be carcinogenic, and can even be mutagenic, meaning they can damage our DNA.

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The good news is that using fewer synthetic fibers and having hard floors could reduce the risks of accumulating these elusive yet dangerous particles. Going outdoors may also help since a previous study found that those who stay indoors 90% of their time have the highest risk of exposure.

How, and how often, houses are cleaned is also important. A large study that found an alarming level of microplastics indoors said that vacuuming or cleaning regularly minimizes chances of inhaling microplastics, where they cannot biodegrade once they are lodged in the lungs.

With the new study finding microplastics associated with ARGs, combined with previous studies of our exposure to them in our own homes, there is a significant cause for concern. Although the exact effects on human health are not known yet, microplastics have consistently emerged as a new threat to our lives, and another of the many consequences of taking the environment for granted.


Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.


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