Exposure to cleaning products on a regular, long-term basis can result in decreased lung function that’s similar to smoking for 20 years, says a study appearing in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
The study, which offers what may be the first long-term look at the health impact of chemical cleaners, found that women are more likely to be affected than men and that negative results were found among professional cleaners as well as those who cleaned around the house.
“While the short-term effects of cleaning chemicals on asthma are becoming increasingly well documented, we lack knowledge of the long-term impact,” said senior study author Dr. Cecile Svanes, a professor at the University of Bergen’s Center for International Health in Norway.
“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,” added Svanes.
Cleaning Once a Week Harms Lungs
The study tracked more than 6,200 men and women who were part of the European Community Respiratory Health Survey, following them for more than 20 years. The average age of the study participants at the outset of the survey was 34.
Using two tests to assess lung health – forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV) and forced vital capacity (FVC) – the researchers discovered that women who were regularly in contact with chemical-based cleaners performed worse on each test than women who didn’t use cleaning products on a regular basis.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the researchers found that cleaning just once per week resulted in poorer lung health results.
“Among women, the use of sprays or other cleaning products (i.e., non-sprays) at least one once per week was associated with accelerated decline in [FEV] as compared to not performing cleaning activities,” says the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
The researchers concluded that long-term exposure to known toxins might logically result in poor health results.
“When you think of inhaling small particles from cleaning agents that are meant for cleaning the floor and not your lungs, maybe it is not so surprising after all,” said lead study author Oistein Svanes, a doctoral student at the university’s Department for Clinical Science.
The study authors describe the way chemical cleaners can negatively impact health in their new research article. “Most cleaning agents have an irritative effect on the mucous membranes of the airways. One possible mechanism for the accelerated decline in cleaners is the repetitive exposure to low-grade irritative cleaning agents over time, thereby causing persistent changes in the airways,” they write in the journal.
They believe their work offers clear advice to people who come in contact with chemical cleaning agents – that is, consider an alternative.
“The take home message of this study is that in the long run cleaning chemicals very likely cause rather substantial damage to your lungs,” Svanes said. “These chemicals are usually unnecessary; microfiber cloths and water are more than enough for most purposes.”
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.