For many people with allergies and asthma, regular cleaning can help keep symptoms at bay, and there’s nothing quite like giving your home a thorough once-over. But depending on what products you use, that sheen can come with a dark underside – so before you reach for those mops, brooms and buckets and hit the grocery store cleaning aisle, read on.
With their cheerful advertisements and colorful bottles, it’s easy to forget that many household cleansers are chemical soups that may set off respiratory and skin reactions in people who are sensitive. But not only are they triggers, Massachusetts research scientist Anila Bello says they can actually cause new sensitivities to form.
Bello was helping Boston-area hospitals switch to safer cleaning compounds. In the process, she spoke with nurses who were experiencing respiratory irritation and asthma symptoms when they entered rooms that had just been cleaned.
Bello is the author of several studies, including “Quantitative assessment of airborne exposures generated during common cleaning tasks: a pilot study” in the journal Environmental Health. While trying to pinpoint the cause of the nurses’ symptoms, she was inspired not only to research the chemicals found in hospital settings, but also in our homes.
Trouble with Disinfectants
Some of the biggest culprits, she says, are disinfectants, especially ones that contain quaternary ammonium compounds – dubbed “quats” – which can harm far more than the germs they’re meant to clean up. “These disinfectants are designed to kill bacteria, and that’s why they are important in terms of adverse health effects in human beings, because they are dangerous to life,” explains Bello, who is also researching the germ-killing effectiveness of various green cleaners as well as do-it-yourself alternatives like vinegar.
Disinfection is necessary in some situations. But Bello says most consumers don’t understand that many of the chemicals are only effective if you first thoroughly clean the surface. Then you apply the disinfectant and let it sit for 10 minutes – then rinse thoroughly. In other words, many consumers are getting the chemical hit, but not the disinfection.
“People want to use disinfectants to protect themselves, but at the same time, concern for their health is pushing us to think, ‘Do we really need them?’” she says. “We are protecting ourselves without any scientific evidence there.”
Dr. Susan Tarlo agrees. As a professor in the department of Medicine and Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto, she has studied the health effects of cleaning products, and treats patients with work-related symptoms.
She says that pinpointing exactly which specific chemicals cause problems can be tricky since cleaning products tend to contain dozens of compounds. But known asthma triggers include bleach and ammonia, (which create harmful compounds if mixed); sodium hydroxide (often found in oven cleaners); amines (found in polishes, wax strippers, and general purpose cleaners); and products containing colophony (pine resin) and limonene (used in lemon scent).
The effects are made worse when they aren’t used as directed. “Some people really go overboard and think the more they use, the better, but they can be quite irritating to the airways – especially if they are sprayed in the air, because the amount breathed in is usually higher,” Tarlo says.
Poor ventilation and a lack of protective equipment such as masks and gloves only compounds the effect. “Many of the reports have been on professional cleaners whose exposures are likely to be greater, but even if somebody is cleaning their own home, especially if they are doing it intensively, they might feel the effects.”
So you spray a little chemical disinfectant, glass cleaner or all-purpose cleanser onto your counter, sink, floor, or bathtub; it smells for a little while, then dissappears, right?
Not so fast, says Bello. Even cleaning chemicals that aren’t naturally volatile – that is, they don’t become airborne on their own – may become attached to dust and get into the air, then into people’s airways. They can also be absorbed through the skin. Some cause respiratory tract irritation and asthma in high concentrations, while others have been linked with cancer or reproductive problems.
What’s worse is that, even well after cleaning, the chemicals can react with ozone and other substances in the air and form what are called secondary emissions – chemical combinations such as formaldehyde and other respiratory irritants that are even more hazardous than their primary sources.
Most of those cleaners also offer a fresh clean scent; but while that zesty lemon, pine or lavender aroma may do a great job of covering up last night’s tuna bake, the majority of fragrances are chemical cocktails, many of which contain hundreds of chemical compounds and can easily aggravate airways.
Since fragrance manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use – their formulations, some of which contain hundreds of chemicals, are considered trade secrets – there is usually no way to tell whether a product contains a particular trigger. To boot, fragrances are built to linger, and since they are in everything from fabric softeners to air fresheners, the odds of those harmful secondary fumes are not insignificant.
But fragrances aren’t the only compounds that do more harm than good when it comes to cleaning agents, according to Bello, glycol ethers – which are used as solvents in many cleaning products – have been linked with both respiratory irritation and cancer.
So you want to do what’s best for your and your family’s health – but your abode is still crying out for that big clean. What products should you use, and which ones should you leave on the shelf?
As Bello points out, labeling on most cleaning products is at best incomplete and products can contain dozens of compounds. So unless you hold a chemistry degree, trying to identify the chemical contents of any given product is next to impossible. As a result, she advises that consumers opt for products that are certified “green” by a recognized organization or government body, such as the ones bearing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment label.
There are other strategies you can try: steer clear of disinfectants unless absolutely necessary, avoid spray products whenever possible to reduce the chance of inhaling chemicals, stay away from products containing quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”), and opt for natural cleaners such as plain soap and water, vinegar and baking soda. With some old-fashioned elbow grease, they can tackle most jobs.
Even Bello still uses a chemical glass cleaner on occasion, but the results of her research have convinced her to go almost entirely chemical-free. “Before I was so driven by their performance, but that has completely changed,” says the researcher, who grew up in Albania without chemical cleaning products, and marveled at them when they first arrived in her country. “Now I am aware that any chemical we can avoid using will be for our benefit.”
Tips On A Green Clean
- Use natural cleaners such as soap, vinegar and water wherever possible; if you must use a chemical product, choose one that is certified green by a reputable organization such as the EPA’s Design for the Environment program. In Canada, there’s the EcoLogo program, which also provides recommendations for safer cleaners on their website.
- Never use more of a cleaning product than you need.
- Never mix cleaning products, as this can create dangerous compounds. For example, if mixed, products containing bleach and ammonia can create hazardous fumes.
- Follow manufacturer’s instructions, and wear protective masks and gloves when recommended.
- Always allow adequate ventilation.
- Be aware that smell and toxicity are not linked; just because a product doesn’t have much of a smell doesn’t mean it’s safe.
- Opt for products that are fragrance-free, and avoid air fresheners.
- Don’t put particles in the air that will aggravate your condition. Use vacuums with HEPA filters and dust with a damp cloth. Wear a mask if necessary, and have someone else tackle the jobs more likely to cause irritation.
- Don’t create more problems. Water left to pool after mopping can cause mold to grow.