Cleaning Products Linked To Respiratory Issues

Only in the last few years have the dangers of common household products become more publicized in the United States.  Along with the organic/ all natural movement, came a wave of media and blogs dedicated to raising awareness and educating Americans to the risks of exposure to certain chemicals which research has shown to be hazardous to our health.  Even still, most Americans are blissfully unaware of those health risks and the best-selling cleaning products are still the name brands we all recognize. Thanks to decades of marketing campaigns, these products still fill the shelves of big box stores and, despite the research of their potential harm, they remain the best sellers in the category.

Many household products contain dangerous chemicals such as VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and asthmagens linked to health problems such as cancer, birth defects, allergies, and respiratory issues. The most common among these are respiratory issues, particularly asthma.

Asthma is a chronic disease caused by inflamed bronchi in the lungs making it difficult to breathe. This inflammation causes oversensitivity in the airways, leading to frequent irritation and allergic reactions. According to the World Health Organization, those suffering from asthma experience regular bouts of wheezing and breathlessness ranging anywhere from hourly to daily and at various intensities. Usually, asthma starts during childhood but asthma affects all age groups. Most children develop asthma by the time they turn five years old. Childhood asthma is on the rise, and one in ten children is believed to be asthmatic.

There are a few different types of asthma (AAAAI).  Exercise-induced asthma (EIA) is a type of asthma affecting healthy individuals who only experience asthmatic symptoms specifically during exercise or strenuous physical activity. The most common type of asthma is allergic asthma. People with allergic asthma experience symptoms after inhaling allergens such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, mold, etc.

The other type of asthma seen is occupational asthma, which is caused by the inhalation of harmful substances while at work. Substances such as fumes, chemicals, dust and other byproducts found in products throughout countless industries.  Occupational asthma is the most prevalent type of work-related lung disease in developed countries and it is believed that in the United States occupational asthma may account for up to 15% of documented asthma cases.

Occupational asthma can be seen in people who were otherwise healthy with no history of respiratory issues prior to exposure on the job or in workers who had experienced asthma only as a child but now find it has returned. Occupational asthma also affects workers who currently have asthma or another respiratory issue as seen in worsening of their symptoms due to exposure at the workplace. In this case, a worsening of pre-existing asthma, it is referred to as work-exacerbated asthma.

We may think of occupational asthma as a risk not relevant to those not working in construction or manufacturing or mining, etc.  The truth is, via cleaning products, the risk is present in almost every American home. Asthma causing agents found in cleaning chemicals, known as asthmagens, are highly prevalent in cleaning products.  According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), those chemicals found in cleaning products can worsen existing asthma symptoms and even cause healthy individuals to develop asthma. The EWG recently tested 2,000 cleaning products and almost 25% of the products contained at least one asthmagen.  

Studies have shown that even using a spray cleaner at home just once a week may increase a person’s chances of developing asthma up to 50% (Zock). These sprays included air fresheners, glass and wood cleaners, etc. Other household products that may have adverse effects include chlorine bleach, laundry detergent, carpet sprays, and dryer sheets.

The prevalence of these chemicals in cleaning products explains why people who use them for a living, such as nurses, janitors, cleaning workers and even homemakers have an increased risk of developing occupational asthma. In the case of nurses and janitors, exposure to disinfectants like chlorine bleach and ammonia, are strongly associated with negative respiratory symptoms. Even those who leave the cleaning profession may still be at an increased risk for developing asthma later on.

A few years ago, the company Fabreeze ran a multi-million dollar ad campaign promoting its air freshener products.  The ads were shown on every major American TV network, in online videos and even during the super bowl. In the ad, Fabreeze conducted an experiment of sorts wherein a participant was blindfolded and asked to sit on a stained couch in a filthy living room.  Around them were various food boxes, trash, and other bad smells.

There was one catch.  The room had been sprayed with Fabreeze.  When the participants were asked what they smelled, they reported the pleasant scents of the Fabreeze scents – lavender, citrus, fresh linens, etc.  The ad was meant to demonstrate how powerful and effective Fabreeze as a product can be. A simple spray can overcome an entire room of offensive odors.  Whether or not you accept the validity of the ad, those pleasant scents found in air freshener products like Fabreeze and other scented home cleaning chemicals come at a cost.

According to the EWG, the worst chemicals to look out for in cleaners include quaternary ammonium compounds (quats), ethanolamines and bleach. Many fragranced products contain VOCs linked to lung damage. When VOCs react with air contaminants they create ozone. Although it has not been demonstrated to cause asthma, long-term exposure to ozone during formative years can cause permanent lung damage. Another VOC found in cleaners is terpene. Terpene is found in pine and citrus scented products and is associated with an increased risk of asthma. When terpenes react with ozone they create formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is extremely dangerous because it is both an asthmagen and a carcinogen.

There are simple ways to limit exposure to these harmful chemicals. The best option is to use as few products as possible, and preferably none at all. Try to make homemade versions of the household products you typically buy instead so that you can control exactly what chemicals you are exposed to.

Another option is to look for the unscented options, often labeled as “free and clear”, as they tend to have less harmful chemicals than scented products. It’s usually advisable to avoid disinfectants or antibacterial products. Most of the time, using soap and water along with a good sponge or microfiber cloth is sufficient. Never use air freshener sprays or standard dryer sheets.

Also, it’s best to avoid spray cleaners in general.  If they are used, spraying into cloth instead of spraying directly onto surfaces or into the air will help limit exposure. Always be sure to properly ventilate your environment when using cleaning products.

Do not rely on the packaging of household products to tell you whether or not a product is safe for you and your family. Many companies use misleading language to lead the consumer to believe a product is safe when it really isn’t, and often known allergens and VOCs are not even listed on the label’s ingredients. If you decide to purchase cleaning products, be sure to consult the EWG and other reputable sources to find the safest products available. The bottom line is in order to limit your exposure to hazardous chemicals in everyday consumer products and protect yourself from health issues, you must be diligent about what is truly non-toxic to protect yourself and your family.

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