Diatomaceous earth is a finely ground powder made from the fossilized remains of microscopic creatures called diatoms. The powder is very porous and light, and it also is quite abrasive. Because of its unique qualities, diatomaceous earth is used for filtration, as an insect repellent, to absorb liquids, as a stabilizer in some compounds and as an insulator. If you find a spill of diatomaceous earth in or around your home, it was probably being used for pool filtration or for insect control. However, diatomaceous earth is also present in some household products like cat litter.
Do Not Inhale
It is possible for diatomaceous earth to damage your lungs. If you need to clean up diatomaceous earth that is not labelled as "food grade," wear a face mask to protect yourself from inhaling any of it. Also clean the clothes that you were wearing when handling it and do not allow children or animals to be exposed to the dust. Depending on the type of diatomaceous earth and how much of it you are exposed to, inhalation can lead to a form of long-term damage called silicosis. Silicosis leads to shortness of breath, a persistent cough and an increased risk of tuberculosis. Even if you do not develop silicosis, inhaling diatomaceous earth can cause bleeding or cysts in your lungs.
Avoid Skin Contact
It is not dangerous to expose your skin to diatomaceous earth but the small pieces have sharp edges that can cut into the top layer of your skin. This will cause skin dryness and sometimes will cause irritation, especially on mucous membranes and other sensitive areas. Many people who handle diatomaceous earth wear rubber or latex gloves, and either try to keep the dust from coming into contact with their skin or wash their skin soon after handling it.
Use a Sealed HEPA Vacuum
The most efficient way to clean up diatomaceous earth is to vacuum it up. However, the particles are so small that they will flow through a regular vacuum filter and be blown out again in a cloud of dust. HEPA filters are designed to catch microscopic particles like diatomaceous earth. However, some vacuums that use a HEPA filter still allow particles to be blown out through cracks in the vacuum. A sealed HEPA filter vacuum is designed to contain any material that it vacuums up and not allow it to escape, and so it is the best choice for cleaning up diatomaceous earth.
Spray With Water
Diatomaceous earth is only dangerous when it becomes airborne and enters the lungs. By spraying with water, the dust and particles will settle out of the air and be weighted down. If you need to sweep up diatomaceous earth, spray it gently with water until saturated and sweep up the resulting mud.