Perhaps cleanliness is next to godliness. But not if you use commercial cleaning products. A study published this year in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, based on the European Community Respiratory Health Survey, found that long-term (twenty years) use of cleaning products can lead to a decline in women’s lung function equivalent to smoking up to twenty cigarettes a day. The effects were not as pronounced in men. (1) The impact of cleaning sprays and other forms of cleaning agents on lung function was experienced in women working both occupationally as cleaners and those who engaged in regular house cleaning.
While the hazards of certain household chemicals are well known, this study was the first to follow its 6,230 participants over the long term. Its primary findings:
- Participants were comprised of 3,298 women and 2,932 men. Of these, 85.1% of women said they were the primary cleaner at home, while among men it was 46.5%.
- Asthma and unpleasant respiratory symptoms are common among people (men and women) who use cleaning chemicals.
- The measures of lung function included forced expiratory volume (FEV – how much air you can exhale one, two, and three seconds after a forced breath), forced vital capacity (FVC – the total volume of air exhaled during an FEV test), and participants’ self-reporting.
- Women who use sprays and other cleaning products at least once per week experienced an accelerated decline in lung function compared to women who didn’t perform cleaning activities.
- There was no increased risk of chronic airway obstruction with the use of cleaning chemicals.
- People who smoke cigarettes experience a more accelerated decline in lung function.
- The effects of cleaning on those who engage in it as an occupation were more significant (compounded if they also cleaned at home), comparable to smoking up to a pack of cigarettes a day for ten to twenty years.
- Cleaning activities may constitute a risk to women’s respiratory health. (2)
The damage caused by irritants in cleaning products appears in different forms:
- inflammation of mucus membranes in the lungs
- cellular, structural, and tissue damage to airways
- systemic sensitization causing an immune system response
How To Reduce Exposure to Harsh Chemicals
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organization that investigates and reports on chemicals in the environment, including air, water, soil, food, and personal and home care products. In light of the long-term consequences of using commercial cleaning products, EWG recommends the following to reduce the risks associated with exposure.
- Carefully choose cleaning products. Federal regulation of chemicals in cleaning products is limited.
- Avoid spray cleaners, as the chemicals spread everywhere in the air. If you use one, spray away from your face onto a cloth and clean from the cloth rather than free spraying the object.
- Cleaning with plain water or water mixed with baking soda is enough in most cases to remove dirt and prevent mold and mildew.
- Let the tool do the work: use an abrasive sponge, scouring pad, or microfiber cloth to remove surface dirt without chemicals. (3)
How many times have you read the label of a cleaning product only to find that the ingredients list says something like “chemical surfactants”? It’s common (and legal) for manufacturers not to disclose every ingredient in their cleaning products. (4) Additionally, when you use more than one cleaning product, some chemicals can become hazardous when they’re combined.
There is a whole host of clinical research on the effects of chemicals on the human body. Focusing on the lungs, here are some of the ways that commercial cleaning products can harm you.
Immune System Dysfunction
Cleanliness is relative and can be a double-edged sword—there’s a difference between clean and sterile. Our bodies need bacteria; there are more of these microbes in us than human cells. (5)
When we use cleaning products, we kill micro-organisms of all kinds, not only the ones that may be potentially harmful. Moreover, normal exposure to viruses and bacteria strengthens the human immune system.
The “hygiene hypothesis” is the result of countless studies showing a correlation between lack of bacteria in the environment and the development of asthma, eczema, allergies, and respiratory ailments. (6)
One such study of germ-free mice found that the absence of bacteria caused T cell (a type of white blood cell integral to immune system response) dysfunction. T cells accumulated in the colons and lungs, leading to irritable bowel disease, allergic asthma, and increased morbidity. When newborn mice were exposed to normal levels of environmental bacteria, immune system function resumed normally. (7) It may sound paradoxical but we need germs to be healthy!
Lung Air Pollution
The air inside your home may be even more toxic than the air outside due to the chemicals we use. Many household cleaners contain a high concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOC). These chemicals leach into the air and are known, hazardous air pollutants.
Glycol ethers and terpenoids found in cleaners and air “fresheners” are among these VOC. What’s scariest about these chemicals is they are sticky—they remain on surfaces and in the surrounding air after dilution, after rinsing with water, and after several days, releasing toxins well past the time they are applied. (8)
Terpenes are antioxidant plant-based compounds that, when in foods, are good for you. When exposed to air, however, they react to ozone and emit toxic gases. (9) Don’t let the fresh smell fool you—you’re breathing in dangerous chemicals. You’re much better off using water and the real thing: lemon oil or juice will clean, disinfect, and smell better than anything you buy in a bottle.
Rhinitis is the Latin word for irritation and inflammation of nasal membranes, which often results in sinus congestion and a runny nose. About 2,300 Chinese primary school children were engaged in a 2016 study of the effects of exposure to fourteen common cleaning products.
The result: the greater the exposure, the higher the incidence of rhinitis.
“We also examined whether a single type of chemical product has dominant effects by repeating the analysis 14 times, each time removing the chemical burden score of one type of cleaning product. No significant change was found in effect sizes, which suggests that the health effects on rhinitis might be synergic or due to total exposure to all or several types of cleaning products.” (10)
Asthma can be life-threatening. Exposure to cleaning sprays, chlorine bleach, and other disinfectants can cause asthma or exacerbate an existing condition. (11) Add to these the artificial fragrances added to other household and personal care products and asthmatics can expect adverse health reactions, including migraines, respiratory problems, mucus build-up, and asthma attacks. (12)
Further, exposure to artificial fragrances has been associated with cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, immune system, neurological, and skin problems. (13)
Contact allergens and irritants found in household cleaning products abound in dish soap, laundry detergent, fabric softeners, and other common items. These chemicals are often added as preservatives and fragrances. Often these additives are not printed on the product label, so you have no idea what you’re buying. (14)
One of these is methylisothiazolinone/methylisothiazolinone, a common chemical preservative. This compound can be found in paints, adhesives, cleaning and personal care products; it’s known to cause contact dermatitis (eczema) and skin allergy. This chemical is even used in “natural” or “green” cleaning products so keep an eye out for it. (15)
Combined Chemical Threat
Chemicals don’t necessarily retain their original composition when mixed together. A common mistake that people make when cleaning is combining chlorine bleach with ammonia. Cleaning with bleach alone can increase your risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), a potentially fatal lung disease. (16)
Bleach and ammonia together create chloramine gas that can cause chest congestion and irritation in the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. If this combo is used repeatedly over time, the gas can cause chronic respiratory illness and even death. (17)
Chloramine can linger in the air for twenty-four hours. In addition, if bleach is mixed with an acid (including simple vinegar), other toxic fumes are released that can cause more severe health problems. Common household cleaners contain ammonia or bleach.
Drain openers, oven cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, and mildew stain removers often contain strong acids or alkalis; breathing in the fumes from these can cause the same type of irritation as bleach and ammonia. (18, 19)
Other Air-borne Toxins
Indoor air pollution can pose serious and long-term health risks. Toxins released indoors accumulate and take longer to dissipate than outdoor air. Sadly, most of us spend most of our time indoors.
The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board lists VOC and air particulates from cleaning products as major indoor sources of pollutants. (20) Ozone is one of these pollutants: a highly unstable form of oxygen produced when oxygen comes into contact with electricity, ultraviolet light, or certain chemicals; it is the primary component of smog. Even natural chemicals like those found in citrus fruit can react with oxygen to form ozone. (21)
High ozone concentrations have been associated with respiratory ailments, neurological impairment, premature death, and increased risk of disease. It may surprise you to learn that many air “purifiers” actually generate ozone in the home, with potentially harmful consequences. (22)
Where to Find Safe Cleaning Products
If we can’t rely on government agencies or product manufacturers to provide safe cleaning products, we have to find them ourselves. If we know what toxins to look for, we can avoid them. If we make our own simple cleaning solutions, we can protect ourselves and our loved ones (and save money!). We can take other proactive steps to clean our ambient air.
- Strong chemicals aren’t necessary to clean your home. Water mixed with baking soda, white (non-GMO) vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or castile soap is enough to clean almost everything.
- Use essential oils to disinfect, if you must: thieves blend, tea tree (melaleuca), eucalyptus, geranium, cinnamon, clove, and others. (23, 24) If it’s smoggy where you live, wait for a clear day to clean and open the windows to prevent ozone build-up.
- If you buy a commercial cleaner, choose an unscented one. Read the label, though: the front may say “unscented” or “fragrance free” or “natural” but if “fragrance” or “parfum” is listed among the ingredients, put it back on the shelf.
- Don’t use ozone-generating air filtering machines.
- Although triclosan has been banned in some jurisdictions due its known toxicity, it can still be found in soaps, hand sanitizers, and toothpaste. Avoid anti-bacterial cleaners in general.
- “Green”, “environmentally-friendly”, “organic”, and “natural” products can contain VOC and other toxins. (25, 26) Click here for EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
- Check out our list of natural cleaning hacks.
- Fill your home with air-filtering houseplants.
- Cleanse your lungs periodically to purge toxins.
You may have used the same cleaning product for years without thinking about it. Considering the potential harm that can occur, it may be worthwhile to find out exactly what’s in it to decide if you want to continue to do so.