Empire of dust: what the tiniest specks reveal about the world


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May 30, 2023

Empire of dust: what the tiniest specks reveal about the world

Nobody normally gives a second thought to dust, but it is inescapable. And if we pay close attention, we can see the biggest things – time, death and life itself – within these tiny floating particles

Nobody normally gives a second thought to dust, but it is inescapable. And if we pay close attention, we can see the biggest things – time, death and life itself – within these tiny floating particles

For two centuries, London’s buildings were black. Blanketed in sulphurous soot from coal fires – the famous London “pea souper” fogs – a thin layer of carbon coated every surface in the city. London was so dirty that there was no memory that it might ever have been any other way. During the restoration of 10 Downing Street in 1954, it was discovered that the familiar dark facade was not actually black at all, but originally yellow brick. The shock was considered too much for the country to take and the newly clean building was painted black to maintain its previous, familiar appearance.

But then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a great clean-up. For more than a decade, scaffolding surrounded landmarks like St Paul’s Cathedral, as power washers hosed the grime down into the sewers and out of sight. These days the city is russet and pale grey, silver-mirrored and blue green – the colours of brick, limestone and glass. The pollution is now polychrome: the primary residue adhering to buildings is not the black of carbon soot, but a warmer browny-yellow colour from the organic hydrocarbons in petrol and diesel fuel. As sulphate emissions from traffic fall, buildings may yet turn green as mosses and lichens grow back.

Yet you cannot just blast dust and grime off all of London’s landmarks. Westminster Hall is the oldest building in parliament, built about 900 years ago by William Rufus, son of the Norman conqueror. In 2007, architectural conservators found that its walls were being corroded by air pollution and penetrated by moisture. They reckoned it had not been cleaned in 200 years. It was time.

But how to do this while maintaining respect for the building’s fabric? Limestone is porous, soluble stuff, which could dissolve under strain from high-pressure washing. Fortunately, more subtle methods are available. Delicate carving can be cleaned using poulticing, akin to a clay face mask for the stone, which draws out deep-seated salts and staining. Latex films are another option: they are brushed or sprayed on, then left to absorb grime from the stone, before being peeled off, taking the dirt with them.

News of the epic cleaning project at Westminster reached an artist in New York, who got permission to preserve the latex sheets used to clean the stonework. The artist, Jorge Otero-Pailos, subsequently displayed them in an exhibition called The Ethics of Dust. In June 2016, I walked into Westminster Hall and confronted a translucent, glowing curtain, 50 metres long and five metres tall, hung from the ancient hammerbeam roof, a patchwork skin encrusted in the grime of the entire city.

Since modernity began, people have complained about airborne dust – but the measures required to control it have come decades or centuries after, if at all. The coalmines and factories that powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution made a capitalist class very rich, while the cost was borne by their workers in their bodies, lungs and blood. The Ethics of Dust was, for me, about human presence made present – about the building rewritten as not only limestone and glass and a wood-beamed roof, or as big abstract nouns like history and tradition and power, but the material traces of millions of bodies, their labours and their livelihoods. It brings the polis, the people, right into the heart of parliament – and it brings a reckoning with the source of Britain’s historical prosperity, too.

Nobody normally thinks about dust, what it might be doing or where it should go: it is so tiny, so totally, absolutely, mundane, that it slips beneath the limits of vision. But if we pay attention, we can see the world within it.

Before we go any further, I should define my terms. What do I mean by dust? I want to say everything: almost everything can become dust, given time. The orange haze in the sky over Europe in the spring, the pale fur that accumulates on my writing desk and the black grime I wipe from my face in the evening after a day traversing the city. Dust gains its identity not from a singular material origin, but instead through its form (tiny solid particles), its mode of transport (airborne) and, perhaps, a certain loss of context, an inherent formlessness. If we knew precisely what it was made of, we might not call it dust, but instead dander or cement or pollen. “Tiny flying particles,” though, might suffice as a practical starting definition.

In 2015, I found myself driving into a forest fire in the Sierra national park in California. Smoke hung heavy in the sky: the fire behind the hills was one ridge away. The particles in the smoke cloud were the soot and wood ash from a burning pine forest. Today, 8.5m tonnes of this burnt “black carbon” are emitted around the world each year, most not of natural origin, but instead from diesel engines, wood-fuelled cooking stoves and burning to clear land for agriculture. Black carbon is a powerful “climate forcer”, absorbing warmth from the sun and contributing substantially to global heating. It is also a major component of fine particle air pollution, known as PM2.5s (particles under 2.5 micrometres in size).

These tiny particles are easily inhaled deep into the lungs. Their even-smaller cousins, ultrafine PM0.1s, can pass through the air sacs in the lungs into the bloodstream, where they can be transported to every organ and can harm potentially every cell in the human body. Particulate air pollution causes not just respiratory illnesses but heart disease, cancers, infertility, even neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Altogether, it’s the fifth biggest cause of death in the world, accounting for 4.2m lives lost each year. If London’s air was compliant with World Health Organization (WHO) standards for PM2.5s, its residents would gain on average an extra 2.5 months of life.

In Lewisham, south-east London, a young girl named Ella Kissi-Debrah lived with her mother, Rosamund, just 25 metres from the city’s busy south circular road. In 2010, aged seven, Ella started to develop a strange and persistent cough. In February 2013, the nine-year-old died of respiratory failure. For years, Rosamund fought to expose the real cause of her daughter’s death. Finally, in December 2020, Ella made legal history as the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. In his remarks, coroner Phillip Barlow said there is “no safe level of particulate matter” in the air and called for national pollution limits to be reduced.

Urban dust is much more than simply carbon soot from combustion, though: there’s friction between people and the environment at every turn. On cars, buses and trains, brakes rub against tyres and tyres press against roads and rails many millions of times a day, stressing materials and abrading tiny little pieces of metal and rubber and asphalt as they go. This is dust I’m all too intimately familiar with: as a cyclist, I know it as “road grime”.

In 2019, a Financial Times investigation declared the London underground “the dirtiest place in the city”, with parts of the Central Line between Bond Street and Notting Hill Gate having more than eight times the WHO limit for PM2.5s. Tube dust is particularly high in iron oxide from the metal brakes and rails, but it’s not only mechanical. “A lot of the dust in this environment is coming from the passengers themselves,” Alno Lesch, operational manager for track cleaning, told the Financial Times, pulling out a black tangle from under the train platform. Human hair.

More than 1,000 people work night shifts in the tunnels underground while the trains rest, brushing and vacuuming the surfaces to remove dust and spraying a fixative to keep what’s left in place. But it does not always entirely work: dusting is, after all, a process of stirring up particles that have previously been minding their own business. When Transport for London cleaned the Bakerloo line, it removed 6.4 tonnes of filth and fluff – yet, once it was finished, PM2.5 levels at nine of the 15 stations tested higher rather than lower.

Cleaning up the mess we make is rarely a matter of neat little technofixes. When it comes to road dust, electric cars prove to be no cleaner than the petrol polluters they replace. Electric vehicles do produce about 75% less brake dust than petrol cars – but they generate more tyre dust and road wear and churn up more road debris, because their batteries make them, on average, heavier. Road dust is a major global source of microplastics, the tiny plastic particles under 5mm in size that have become an increasingly recognised environmental pollution problem in the past decade. About 6.1m tonnes of tyre wear particles are generated each year – plus a further 0.5m tonnes of brake wear particles, too. This makes road dust the source of more than a third of the microplastics in our oceans.

I haven’t even got to the dust in my flat. To all the above we can add skin flakes, pet dander, hair, textile fibres, disintegrating bits of particleboard furniture, sofa foam and all the chemicals – such as flame retardants – that are designed to keep you safe, but can also cause cancer, decrease fertility, impact cognitive ability and cause thyroid disease. Road dust and construction dust blow into your home through the windows and walk in on the soles of your shoes – alongside fragments of mineral dust from distant deserts and perhaps even the odd radioactive particle. A doormat is only so much use.

Of all the chores of material reproduction, none is more futile and maddening than dusting. Why? Because dust is remarkably hard to get rid of. Each faff of the feather duster merely transfers your energy to these tiny particles – which fly merrily into the air, float for a few moments, then gently settle down again, distributing themselves right back over the surfaces you just wiped. But you’re smart, you say? You use a dampened cloth, or some fancy microfibre invention with electrostatic fibres that you saw on an infomercial? No matter: the very pressure of your hand abrades cloth and surface alike, leaving a trail of microscopic destruction.

You will never, ever get anything perfectly clean: it cannot be done. So when – and why – did this impossible task become an aspiration? In Europe and the US, the 20th century dawned on a domestic landscape powered by wood, coal and elbow grease. In her 1934 autobiography, the American novelist Edith Wharton observed: “I was born into a world in which telephones, motors, electric light, central heating (except by hot-air furnaces), X-rays, cinemas, radium, airplanes and wireless telegraphy were not only unknown but still mostly unforeseen.” By the time she came to set down her memoirs, these once-startling novelties were commonplace.

Yet for all that these technologies might seem to make the world bigger – the day longer, the span of your daily movement freer and further – the effects they had on women’s lives were often quite the opposite. Far from liberating women from domestic labour, these technologies only made more of it. Brighter light meant dust and dirt were now more visible and so women had to clean more thoroughly and more frequently to remove them. Clothes had to be laundered after a day or two; one’s children, likewise.

“Housework as we know it is not something ordained by the limits of the human immune system. It was invented, in fact, around the turn of the century, for the precise purpose of giving middle-class women something to do,” the author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in 1993. “Once food processing and garment manufacture moved out of the home and into the factories, middle-class homemakers found themselves staring uneasily into the void. Should they join the suffragists? Go out in the work world and compete with the men? ‘Too many women,’ editorialised the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1911, ‘are dangerously idle.’ Enter the domestic-science experts, a group of ladies who, if ever there is a feminist hell, will be tortured eternally with feather dusters. These were women who made careers out of telling other women that they couldn’t have careers because housework was a big enough job in itself.”

A new generation of housework manuals appeared, to instruct women in the attitudes, behaviours and anxieties proper to the housewifely role. The ABC of Good Housekeeping, published in 1949, directs the housewife’s schedule from 7am to 7pm every day. Dust work begins at 9.30am, when she is to dust and tidy the bedrooms, before moving on to sweeping and dusting the lounge, dining room, landing and stairs at 10.15. Between 11.30 and 12.30 and from 3-4pm she is assigned “special weekly duties”, which means more dusting on four days out of six as a particular room is deep cleaned. In addition, all floor types need sweeping or dusting each day, with carpets vacuumed weekly; furniture needs daily dusting and “rubbing up”, and wall surfaces require weekly dusting, too.

Why did dusting have to be done so frequently? Cleanliness is about respectability: “You never know when a dear and trusted friend or relative may drop in and run a white-gloved finger along a skirting board behind the couch, and how would you feel then?” the 1950s’ satirist Elinor Goulding Smith observed. But there’s also a deeper anxiety, a fear of invasion: dust is relentless and it surrounds us. The historian Elaine Tyler May, in her book about the impact of the cold war on American families, described how the stability of the suburban home symbolised meaning and security at a time of deep geopolitical threat. Dust reveals that the home’s sanctity is a fiction: it threatens its status as a haven from the outside world. The battle against it looks trivial, but subconsciously the stakes are existential.

In her 1963 polemic The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan describes how “millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their station wagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor”. Their lives were reduced to servitude, she argues – their own ambitions and interests put aside in favour of their family’s needs. Friedan called it “a problem that has no name”, a sickness of the soul caused by a life filled with inane tasks and profoundly constrained horizons. Think of Betty Draper, the perfect blond housewife in Mad Men, her hands going numb with suppressed psychosomatic rage when she has to do the washing up and other domestic chores. Seeing the day stretch away into emptiness, she picks up a gun and goes out into the garden to shoot the neighbour’s pigeons for daring to exercise the airy freedom she lacks.

Critics argue that Friedan overstated the plight of the desperate housewife. All the women she wasn’t writing about – the women of colour and working-class women; the single mothers, lesbians and singletons – had their own struggles, too, many far more materially urgent than boredom. Still, there’s something vividly symbolic in this cultural moment: the perfect white suburban housewife, driven mad by a smudge of dirt.

When I’m stressed or overwhelmed, or when I feel a lack of control in my life, I feel a compulsive need to clean my flat. It’s a desire to restore order to my environment, in the hope that it might somehow restore such order to my agitated mind. The same belief exists at a societal level.

You may know the famous definition of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, that “dirt is matter out of place”. What’s significant in this insight is that Douglas is not just talking about the material ordering of things. “I believe that some pollutions are used as analogies for expressing a general view of the social order,” she writes. The history of anxieties about dust and domestic hygiene prove this at every turn.

The interventions of the 19th-century sanitary reformers and the “domestic science mania” at the turn of the century were often marked by class prejudice. Adrian Forty, the emeritus professor of architectural history at University College London, connects “the fetish for hygiene” with “bourgeois fears of losing social and political authority”. As he writes, “anxieties about pollution arise when the external boundaries of a society are threatened.” Urbanisation and industrialisation shook the established social order, creating a new urban working class who took part in protests, labour strikes – and in France and Germany, revolutions – in order to win the rights to a fair wage, better working conditions and the vote.

Hygiene became a means of differentiating the “good”, “respectable” poor from the lumpen rabble. Those who followed middle-class public health worker diktats might get rehoused when their slum was razed; those who were less compliant were evicted. The least fortunate literally grovelled on London’s dust heaps – the great refuse piles, one just south of King’s Cross – scratching a living from the dregs of what everyone else threw out. The middle classes similarly had to make a show of household cleanliness in order to mark themselves as elevated above those who did “dirty work”.

Dust – or preferably its absence – continued to signify status and respectability for working class communities in the UK throughout the mid-20th century. Women in inner-city terrace homes would scrub the front step as a daily or weekly ritual, buffing it up with red polish or scouring it with a donkey stone until it shone. The street outside would be swept to keep down dust and dirt (important in industrial areas) and a bucket of soapy scrubbing water sluiced over the pavement once done, to clean that up, too. “It showed you were house-proud,” Margaret Halton, 85, told the Lancashire Telegraph in 1997. “You could tell who was clean and who wasn’t just by looking at their doorstep.” In these narrow streets and tight-knit communities, all eyes were on you. Maintaining pristine cleanliness among difficult conditions was how you showed pride.

Researching this subject, I thought at first the expulsion of dust was a tiny, but intrinsic part of the creation of modernity – the making of the new through the conquest of disease and dirt, cleanliness as a doctrine of control, right down to a microscopic level. As I read on, however, “whiteness” kept turning up alongside the dirt – not only as the visual image of the ideal, hygienically spotless home environment, but also in the whiteness of the archetypal 1950s’ American housewife, living in the suburbs from which Black families were systemcally excluded by banks and mortgage lenders. In London today you’d have to shut your eyes not to notice that the majority of people doing dust work, cleaning homes and offices, are people of colour, often Latin American and Black. The history of 20th-century cleanliness is a history not only of the making of gender and class distinctions, but racialised inequalities, too.

Cleanliness is rarely just cleanliness, a practical, functional process of vacuuming the carpets and washing your hands with soap. It is always burdened with additional significance. The supposedly self-evident virtue of cleanliness becomes muddied when we recognise how it is often used to create categories of person: the virtuous citizen versus the marginalised. Women, in particular, are disciplined through words such as “slut”, “slattern” and “sloven” that link sexual immorality to matters of dirtiness and carelessness – the “good woman” still synonymous with the careful, “clean” housewife.

Don’t get me wrong: please do continue to vacuum. Dust mites trigger asthma and the endocrine-disrupting fire-retardant chemicals released by your sofa as it ages are not a health benefit. The sanitary reform do-gooders of the 19th century did genuinely do good for public health. But can we ever strip dirt of its moral horror?

Dust is simultaneously a symbol of time, decay and death – and also the residue of life. Its meaning is never black or white, but grey and somewhat fuzzy. Living with dust – as we must – is a slow lesson in embracing contradiction: to clean, but not identify with cleanliness; to respect the material need for hygiene while distrusting it profoundly as a social metaphor.

This is an edited extract from Dust: The Modern World In a Trillion Particles by Jay Owens published by Hodder & Stoughton on 31 August. To order a copy, go to Guardianbookshop.com.

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