DEAR DOCTOR: How bad are cleaning products for our lungs? My mom keeps talking about a news story that said chemicals in cleaning products are as dangerous as cigarettes. Is my clean kitchen killing me?
DEAR READER: Your mom is referring to the results of a study published last year that found that not only do cleaning products harm the respiratory system, they seem to adversely affect women more than men.
The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway, assessed the lung health of more than 6,200 women and men over the course of two decades. Among the information the participants were asked to provide was how often they cleaned with chemical products, how much of each product they used, and whether or not they were professional house cleaners. Lung function was regularly assessed, including by measuring the volume of air each person could forcibly breathe out in a single exhale. When the data was analyzed, researchers found that cleaning with chemical products as little as once a week resulted in an increased risk of decline in lung function. More frequent use of chemicals came with a greater risk of decline. The researchers said using cleaning products for 20 years had the same adverse effects on the lungs as smoking 20 cigarettes a day for two decades.
Interestingly, although men who used cleaning products and worked as professional cleaners also experienced a decline in lung function, it was less severe than the effects seen in women.
Previous studies have identified a link between the chemicals in household cleaners and respiratory conditions like asthma, headache, migraine and allergies. This is believed to be due to the caustic agents in the products, such as bleach, ammonia and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These can irritate and even injure the sensitive mucosal linings of the respiratory tract. Over time, this may lead to persistent changes at the cellular level that adversely affect lung function. Also at issue are the delivery methods of cleaning products, such as aerosol sprays. With a single push of the button, these can turn harsh chemicals into a mist of billions of easily breathable particles.
The authors of the study urged health officials to consider the strict regulation of cleaning products in order to protect consumers, and asked manufacturers to move away from aerosol products. Until that day, however, there are a few steps you can take at home to protect yourself. Consider wearing a dust mask or particulate filter while cleaning. These are widely available at hardware and home improvement stores, come in several types and styles, and are rated according to the substances that they filter.
No doubt you've heard it before, but never use cleaning products in an enclosed space. Open a window or door, or set up a fan to keep fresh air circulating.
Consider going old-school with soap and water, baking soda for scrubbing, and a water and vinegar solution for windows and mirrors. If you just can't give up commercial products, visit epa.gov/saferchoice to find the safest ones.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.