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Just a mite irritating

Bugs that trigger asthma can be beaten, says Robert Verkaik
Asthma sufferer Des Whitrow has turned her house into a minimalist's ideal home. She has taken up almost all her carpets, removed soft furnishings, and covered all beds in plastic. For the past five years, Mrs Whitrow, 44, a biology lecturer, has been waging a one-woman war against an invisible irritant - the house dust mite.

She now claims her rather over-zealous spring-cleaning has made her asthma better, and she is telling fellow sufferers their conditions could improve if they do the same. Her methods are precisely detailed in her book, House Dust Mites, published earlier this year after a five-year struggle trying to persuade uninterested publishers of its worth.

Mrs Whitrow, who lives in Nottingham with her husband and two children, reminds us that we produce a pint of water each night in sweat and a gram of skin every month for the house mite to feed on. She advises ripping out carpets, ditching dust mite-friendly furniture, and replacing old mattresses.

She is by no means alone in her extreme methods. The National Asthma Campaign also advocates carpetless floors for dust mite sufferers, while the National Eczema Society, as part of an extensive package of counter- mite measures, recommends leaving children's soft toys in the freezer to kill off the mites.

But although recent scientific evidence shows the house dust mite's droppings can cause asthma and eczema allergies, experts caution against over-reaction.

The wave of dust mite hysteria which swept the continent a decade ago, recently ended with European governments and their medical advisers having to make embarrassing climbdowns. In 1983, following rash advice from their government, Swedes began ripping up their carpets in a bid to eradicate dust mite asthma. The Swedish carpet industry was decimated.

More recently, an experiment was carried out in Norway, where carpets were removed from all state schools. The French banned carpets in their post offices. Nevertheless, European asthma rates have continued to rise, and in the past year, all three countries have reinstated the continental carpet.

Dr David Hide, consultant of clinical allergy and director of the Clinical Allergy Research Clinic at St Mary's Hospital, Isle of Wight, urges sufferers not to rush into the enormous expense of new mattresses, super-hoovers and house mite sprays without first making an appointment with an allergy clinic to determine whether they are allergic to dust mites. "You can," he says, "reduce your bedroom to a prison cell, but that's extreme. Think of alternatives and be reasonable. Why not try hoovering first?"

Mrs Whitrow has tried everything, including vacuuming, but concludes: "It merely removes the ones on the surface of a mattress or carpet. Those hiding deeper in the padding cling on to the fibres with the suckers on their claws."

This week, Electrolux is introducing a high-powered vacuum cleaner, the upright Airclean 1200, costing pounds 249.99, with a three-stage filtration system, which, it claims, will keep 99.99 per cent of dust sucked up actually in the bag, and not in your lungs.

"A vacuum cleaner with 1200 watts is very powerful," says Mrs Whitrow. "Most have wattages between 500 and 1,000. It's expensive, but I imagine it will take up all the dust. Ordinary vacuum cleaners are a health hazard because they blow dust out."

Meanwhile, Dr John Maunder, director of Cambridge University's Medical Entomology Centre, recently produced a report on the relationship between beds, bedding, house dust mites and asthma. He concludes that many houses don't even contain dust mites in the first place. "There is widespread misunderstanding of the ways in which links between asthma and the mite operate. Possibly no aspect of the subject is more affected by flawed and misunderstood information than the relationship between asthma and soft furnishings."

His report showed that the dust mite allergen found in carpets is either "stuck sufficiently firmly to it or has worked its way sufficiently deeply into it that it is of little danger". He warns that allergens falling on to a carpet-free, polished floor can "become airborne again in the slightest draught".

He advocates simple housekeeping measures, and blames a deterioration of bedroom hygiene standards for contributing to the problem. "Our grandmothers had a collective empirical wisdom. Sleep with your windows open, they said. It's good for your chest, they said, and they were right."

'House Dust Mites' by Des Whitrow is published by Elliot Right Way (pounds 3.99, p&p pounds 4.50), Kingswood Building, Lower Kingswood, Tadworth, Surrey, KT20 6TD.

Fighting asthma in the home

In her book 'Coming Up for Air: Self-help for Asthma Sufferers' (Headline, pounds 5.99, 26 October), Brigid McConville recommends the following:

Get rid of as many mite havens (carpets, curtains, soft furnishings) as you can. Where you must have carpets, go for short pile and synthetic.

Cover mattress, pillows and duvet with special barrier covers.

Wash pillows, duvets and blankets at above 55C monthly.

Invest in a state-of-the-art vacuum cleaner with first-class filters.

Cut down on humidity. Keep windows open.

Use acaricides - chemical mite-killing sprays for carpets and soft furnishings. They are available from chemists.

Throw out feather dusters and dusters.

Dust sheets (prices are for double-mattress covers) available from: Allergy Relief Products (01703 332919) pounds 30; The Linen Cupboard (0171-629 4062) pounds 35; 1-In-4/Holden Medical (01204 571686) pounds 56.95; Alprotec (0161- 903 9293) pounds 57.60; Allerayde (01636 613444) from pounds 65.95. Boots sells Intervent covers at pounds 139. Mattresses fitted with Intervent covers are available from Slumberland (0161-628 4886 for stockists) from pounds 178. For solvent- free emulsion paints, contact The Healthy House (01453 752216). Electrolux stockists: 01582 585858.