It’s long been known that the harsh chemicals found in many conventional cleaning products can be dangerous if handled incorrectly. However, recent research shows that even just being exposed to fumes from cleaning products may be much more dangerous than most people realize. As consumers, it’s important to know what’s in the products we use in our homes and around our families, and to make sure that we’re limiting our exposure to harmful chemicals, but for those with chronic conditions like asthma, allergies, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it’s critically important.
In this article, we're going to explain important things you need to know about the effects of cleaning chemical fumes on your lungs and how to adjust your cleaning methods to be more lung-friendly.
Research on Cleaning Products & Lung Health
Scientists and medical professionals have known for some time that exposure to harsh cleaning chemicals can cause asthma and other chronic respiratory symptoms, but they had little data on the long-term effects. In the past few years, however, researchers have found strong links between cleaning chemical fumes and respiratory diseases.
One study from Harvard University and the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, published in 2017, found a strong correlation between subjects' regular use of chemical cleaners and fatal lung diseases, including COPD. The 30-year study followed more than 55,000 nurses in the United States. Over the course of the study, the researchers found that those who used bleach and other common disinfectants just once per week had a 32% higher risk of developing COPD.
A more recent study done by the University of Bergen in Norway, and published in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, found that women who work as cleaners, or who regularly clean the family home using conventional cleaning sprays or other products, have a greater decline in lung health over time than women who do not clean. In fact, researchers estimated that the amount of lung function these women lost was roughly equivalent to smoking a whole pack of cigarettes every day. Those who were exposed even more often than that experienced more severe lung decline.
"While the short-term effects of cleaning chemicals on asthma are becoming increasingly well documented, we lack knowledge of the long-term impact," said Professor Cecilie Svanes, MD, PhD, professor at the Centre for International Health at the University of Bergen, and the senior author of the study. "We feared that such chemicals, by steadily causing a little damage to the airways day after day, year after year, might accelerate the rate of lung function decline that occurs with age," Svanes added. Svanes and her colleagues studied 6,235 subjects in nine countries in western Europe. Participants had lung function tests and filled out questionnaires three times over the course of 20 years. On average, the subjects were in their mid-30s when they enrolled. About half were female; 85% of women said that they were the primary person cleaning at home. Altogether, 8.9% of the women and 1.9% of the men involved in the study said that cleaning was their occupation.
The study used two measurements to assess lung function: forced expiratory volume per second, which is the amount of air a person can forcibly exhale in a second, and forced vital capacity, or the total amount a person can exhale in a second. Over the two decades of the study, women not working as professional cleaners and not involved in cleaning at home showed the slowest declines in lung function. Compared to those women, women who used cleaning sprays or other chemical cleaning products at least once a week had a faster decline in lung function. The decline was faster still for women who worked as cleaners. In addition, they found that asthma was more prevalent in women who cleaned at home (12.3%) or at work (13.7%), compared with those who did not clean (9.6%).
Despite including men in the study, the researchers were unable to find any strong evidence of cleaning product-related lung decline in men. However, that doesn't mean that men who get regularly exposed to fumes from cleaning chemicals are any less at risk; the researchers noted that the men in the study simply did not use cleaning products as often as the women subjects, which likely left them with too small a sample to detect such effects among the men.
The researchers said that the decline in lung health may be due to the irritation that most cleaning chemicals cause on the mucous membranes lining the airways, which can cause long-term changes.
What Harsh Cleaning Product Fumes Do to Your Lungs
Any time you use a chemical cleaning solution, it emits fumes into the air that you inevitably end up breathing. Many chemicals found in common cleaning and disinfecting products create fumes that are irritating and toxic to your lungs. As soon as the noxious fumes touch your lung tissue, they can cause inflammation and a variety of respiratory symptoms like coughing, sneezing, and shortness of breath. These fumes can inflame your eyes, nose, and upper airways, causing a sharp, burning pain when you breathe. Being exposed to a large volume of fumes at once can also cause sore throat, nausea, headache, dizziness, and even stomach pain. And these are only the acute, immediate effects. As the Harvard and University of Bergen studies show, breathing in even small amounts of fumes over a long period of time can cause chronic health problems and do permanent damage to your lungs.
Which Cleaning Products are Dangerous?
Although clever marketing and colorful packaging may lead you to believe that a product is safe to use in your home and around your children, the reality is that no commercial cleaning product is completely safe to use. And some products are much worse for your lungs than others. Certain harsh cleaning chemicals, like ammonia and bleach, are particularly toxic to breathe. The 2017 Harvard study, for example, found that exposure to cleaning solutions containing bleach seemed especially likely to cause respiratory decline and even lead to COPD later in life. Unfortunately, ammonia and bleach are some of the most common chemicals found in commercial cleaning products. If you don't read the ingredients carefully, you might even use cleaners containing ammonia or bleach without even realizing it.
According to the American Lung Association, many cleaning supplies or household products can irritate the eyes or throat, or cause headaches and other health problems, including cancer. Some products can release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals that emit toxic gases during use and provoke respiratory inflammation and irritation. VOCs and other toxic chemicals released when using cleaning supplies contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and headaches.
Products that contain the ingredient “fragrance” can also be harmful. But what exactly is fragrance? Simply put, “fragrance” is an umbrella term that the cleaning industry uses on ingredients lists that discloses only that there are unnamed chemicals in the product. The truth is that any one synthetic fragrance can be made up of potentially hundreds of different ingredients, including phthalates – which have been linked to a number of hazardous health conditions, including reproductive malformation, liver and breast cancers, and diabetes – as well as a number of hormone disrupting synthetic musks, including galaxolide, tonalide, musk xylene, and musk ketone. Fragranced products can also exacerbate symptoms in people with asthma, allergies, or COPD. Even natural fragrances such as citrus can react to produce dangerous pollutants indoors. So, while these products may smell good, it’s best to steer clear of using them in your home.
Cleaning supplies and household products containing VOCs, phthalates, and other toxic substances can include, but are not limited to:
- Aerosol spray products, including health, beauty and cleaning products
- Air fresheners
- Chlorine bleach
- Detergent and dishwashing liquid
- Dry cleaning chemicals
- Rug and upholstery cleaners
- Furniture and floor polish, and
- Oven cleaners
Tips for Safer Cleaning
Cleaning our homes is an essential part of living a healthy life, but there are a few simple steps you can take to making cleaning safer.
Avoid caustic spray products.
Spray products push chemicals into the air for you to inhale, so take particular care when selecting them and avoid harsh products like fragranced air fresheners and aerosol disinfectants, and oven cleaners.
Ventilate the room you’re cleaning.
Use products in a ventilated area to reduce the amount inhaled into your respiratory system.
Decrease the number of cleaning products and harsh chemicals you use in your home.
Many people use multiple products to clean their homes. For example, they may use bleach, toilet bowl cleaner, and ammonia-based glass cleaner in the bathroom; all-purpose cleaner and bleach in the kitchen; air freshener spray in the living room; and an aerosol disinfectant spray in every room in the house. Using multiple products can result in dangerous chemical reactions and be detrimental to lung health. Instead of using multiple cleaning products in your home, use one product that can tackle every job, like Vital Oxide. Vital Oxide can be used to clean, disinfect, remove stains, get rid of odors, and eliminate allergens, all while being free of VOCs and harsh chemicals.
Vital Oxide: The Lung-friendly Cleaner & Disinfectant
At Vital Oxide, we’re proud to have created a bleach-free, VOC-free, fragrance-free, allergen-free, non-corrosive solution that’s also an EPA-registered hospital disinfectant. Vital Oxide is gentle enough to use around kids and pets. Learn more about the science behind our product, as well as tons of great tips on cleaning, reducing allergens, and more. If you have any questions, please Contact Us at any time. We’re here to help.