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A great deal of research on the substance has been carried out in the past but English Heritage, together with the National Trust and the University of East Anglia, are now going to look at the transformation process that helps dust particles cement themselves onto objects, especially furniture and works of art.

The cementing process is so complete that it makes the particles almost impossible to remove. This is especially true on fragile textiles such as bedspreads where dust can form into layers like miniature mudpacks.

The £88,000 grant comes from the Leverhulme Trust to investigate what constitutes this ‘cement’ and why dust behaves in the way it does.

Dust poses a significant problem in the historic built environment. In the case of archaeological and historic objects and works of art, the surface is all-important and the alteration of historic surfaces impairs both the aesthetic and commercial value.

Dust can cause physical damage or chemical alteration and further damage can arise during attempts at cleaning. The sources, type and deterioration mechanisms of indoor dust have received some attention in recent years, but the transformations that bind dust more strongly to surfaces over time, the ‘cement’ effect, is poorly understood.

English Heritage and its partners will use four historic properties, Audley End House, Hampton Court Palace, Osterley Park House and Knole, as sites for monitoring how changes in the environment, such as temperature and humidity, affect the behaviour of dust. The fact that some dusts also appear to release corrosive gases on exposure to elevated humidity will also be investigated.

As well as the collection of samples from the historic sites, visitor perception of dustiness has been assessed through questionnaires. Typically, visitors were asked if they believe certain exposed objects are dusty or not. This assessment of people’s perception of dust may help set standards for what levels might be acceptable on historic materials.

Results obtained so far indicate that visitors accept and even expect a certain degree of dustiness in historic houses. This may reduce the frequency with which some surfaces have to be cleaned, and would clearly decrease the amount of damage caused by cleaning.

The project will also focus on where dust comes from and how it gets onto exposed materials. Sticky pads are being used to collect dust, the particles of which are then examined under a microscope to determine whether they are fibres or dust particles. Residues from washing detergents can be helpful in deciding whether dust and fibres are from visitors’ clothes or from tapestries or carpets. Laboratory experiments and scanning electron microscopy will be used to understand the way that different particles adhere to historic materials. These observations will offer important clues about the ‘cementation’ process.

Professor Peter Brimblecombe of the University of East Anglia said: “This important project will make a major scientific contribution to the management of the historic environment. More broadly, it will contribute to the general debate about air pollution.”