Household cleaners may increase risk of developing asthma - Tucson News Now

Cleaning products may increase asthma risk

Most of us have an arsenal of products designed to clean a variety of surfaces in our homes such as wood, glass or stainless steel.

Each of these cleaners are mixtures of chemicals that should be used correctly.

Scientists say monitoring your exposure to these products could improve your breathing.

A person's skin is a natural buffer for the body in keeping out any harsh chemicals found in cleaners, but your nose is an open door to anything airborne.

According to research, inhaling some of the ingredients in common household cleaners may increase your risk of developing asthma.

The products you use to tackle those cleaning chores could be adding to the amount of indoor pollution in your home.

Ahmed Arif is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

He says scientists are not exactly sure about all the health consequences associated with using certain household cleaning chemicals. 

Recently, Arif studied nurses and other health care professionals. He found they often have higher rates of asthma because their jobs often require the use of strong cleaning chemicals.

In fact, Arif's research linked their chemical exposure to two types of asthma.

For some, their asthma worsened because of chemicals used in the workplace. Others, who frequently used certain cleaning products, experienced asthma for the first time.  

"Awareness is important," Arif says. "Be aware--these chemicals can do harm."

So, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Like most people, Micki Spear uses cleaning products in her home containing chemicals similar to the ones used in hospitals or other healthcare environments.

This new research may mean more of us need to use caution before grabbing those cleaning bottles or sprays.  

While the cleaning products in our cabinets are often not industrial strength, researchers say the cumulative effect of the chemicals in some popular household cleaners over time is largely unknown.

"That really wouldn't surprise me, and I'm sure there's a whole lot left to learn," Spears says.

To learn which of the chemicals in her cabinets could irritate her airways or cause an allergic reaction, we spent several hours with her one day. We were curious about all the chemicals a typical person might come in contact with around their home. 

We then returned to Arif's office and shared with him a list of all the chemicals Spear came in contact with.

"Some of these are very strong respiratory irritants," Arif noted.

He was particularly concerned about the sodium hypochlorite found in bleach, hydrogen chloride present in the toilet bowl cleaner, and alcohol ethoxylate in the oven surface polish.

"I need something that's going to be a workhorse," Spear said.

Heavy-duty chemicals like formaldehyde and ammonia have also been linked to irritating existing asthma conditions.

If your eyes are watering and you're coughing or sneezing, look at the ingredients on the label. Then, look for an alternative product.

Arif recommends using greener cleaners or those with non-toxic, biodegradable ingredients.

Spear will tell you the same thing.

She has asthma and has already started switching to other products.

"I also want the product for the right job," Spear said.

Like most of us, she prefers to keep some of the heavy-duty products on hand, but if she starts experiencing sensitivity with breathing, she knows to don a mask and gloves, and open a nearby window.

It takes a lot of work to keep a clean house, but scientists say it only takes an extra minute to ensure the smell and feeling of fresh doesn't involve any harmful fumes.

Additional Information: 

  • Use regular unscented 5%-6% household bleach and follow instructions when cleaning. (Source: CDC)
  • Never mix bleach with ammonia or other cleaners. (Source: CDC)
  • Data from nearly 1,000 adults on their volatile organic compound exposure found an average decrease in lung function of 4% associated with exposure to a chemical found in mothballs, room deodorizers, and insecticides. (Source: U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
  • A study published in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that regular use of cleaning sprays was linked to a 30 to 50 percent increased risk of asthma.
  • Click here to see a database of common household products compiled by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

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