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Published: Monday, 11/6/2000

Could bugs call your bed their home?

Bugs in whose bed? Mine?

Chances are good that you've got them. And the little creatures may be making you or other family members sick.

That's the conclusion of researchers, vacuum cleaners in hand, who collected dust samples from bedding and other objects in hundreds of homes around the United States.

They gathered from the National Institutes of Health, Harvard University, and other institutions to conduct the First National Allergen Survey. Allergens are materials like plant pollen and mold spores that trigger allergy symptoms. Among the most common are nasal congestion, an itchy throat, tearing eyes, a runny nose, sneezing, and that “I've-always-got-a-cold” feeling.

Beds were a main target of the study because of growing evidence that dust-like material in mattresses, pillows, blankets, and other household objects are major risk factors for allergy and asthma.

Dust-like material means insects, their decayed bodies, and fecal material. Most notorious is the house dust mite, a bug so tiny that a couple could stand on the period at the end of this sentence.

Dust mites, which are related to spiders, feed on shreds of dead skin and other material cast off by people and domestic pets. They live in dark, warm, moist places, such as mattresses, box springs, pillows, carpets, and upholstered furniture. Dust mites cause no known health problem aside from allergy.

The researchers checked dust in a sample of 831 homes. They picked the homes to be representative of the country as a whole in terms of geographical region, family income, housing type, and other factors. In doing so, they could make estimates about the bug-dust problem nationwide.

They concluded that house dust mites are present in more households than previously suspected. About 45 per cent of American homes have bedding with dust mite allergen levels high enough to cause allergies. Many had much higher levels of mites and mite debris - enough to trigger severe breathing difficulties in people with asthma.

So what should people do?

For individuals living in a household of healthy adults or adults and older children - none of whom have allergy symptoms - maybe there's nothing to do but accept the reality: There is life on man and woman, insects and a whole invisible realm of bacteria and fungi that inhabit the skin and hair.

Other people may want to declare war. The battle strategy is simple:

  • Keep the bedroom as dust-free as possible. Dust furniture often, and vacuum floors at least once a week. Consider a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency dust filter.

  • Eliminate objects that collect dust and harbor mites, including thick carpets, upholstered furniture, cloth draperies, and stuffed children's toys. Floors covered with hardwood, tile, or linoleum are easier to keep clean than carpet.

  • Keep pets out of the bedroom. They shed skin particles that serve as food for dust mites. Avoid high humidity, which dust mites love. To reduce bedroom humidity, run an air conditioner or dehumidifier.

  • Consider buying a High Efficiency Particle Arresting (HEPA) air cleaner to remove airborne allergens. Wash bed linen at least one a week in hot water to kill mites.

  • Consider using special allergy-relief type bed linens, made from tightly woven fabric that forms a barrier against mites and other allergens.

    Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.



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