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!