If the background universe is observed through a significant amount of diffusely distributed foreground dust, then studies at optical wavelengths may be severely biased. Previous studies investigating the effects of foreground dust on background sources assumed dust to be ‘compactly’ distributed, i.e. on scales comparable to the visible extent of normal galaxies. We show, however, that diffuse dust is more effective at obscuring background sources. Galaxy clusters are a likely location for ‘large-scale’ diffusely distributed dust, and its effect on the counts of background sources is explored. We also explore the implications of a hypothesised diffuse intergalactic dust component uniformly distributed to high redshift with comoving mass density equal to that associated with local galaxies. In this case, we predict a deficit in background sources about three times greater than that found in previous studies.