Frequent use of cleaning products in the home may increase a baby’s risk of developing asthma and chronic wheezing during early childhood, and could be an important area for respiratory health interventions, a new study suggests.

The study, published in February in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, investigated data from the ongoing Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development, or CHILD, Cohort Study, which follows infants from the beginning of gestation to 3 years old.

Infants are more susceptible than adults to the harms of chemicals, since their organs and immune and respiratory systems are still developing. They also spend more time indoors and in closer proximity to the ground, where cleaning chemicals accumulate.

The study reviewed how frequently 2,022 households used 26 cleaning products – including dish and laundry detergents, and multisurface and glass cleaners – during infants’ first three or four months. Researchers then compared this data to the children’s health outcomes at age 3.

They found that 11 percent of children in households with high use of cleaning products often wheezed – an indication of narrowed or inflamed airways and often the earliest signs of asthma. Almost 8 percent of kids in those same households had asthma. Chronic wheezing and asthma were lower in households with lower cleaning product use – about 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively. The risk of asthma and wheezing were higher in those households that frequently used air fresheners, deodorizers, dusting sprays, antimicrobial hand sanitizers and oven cleaners.

In addition, many categories of scented spray cleaning products were strongly associated with these health outcomes. Scented cleaning products, in any form, typically use the term “fragrance” on their ingredient label, a term that can hide the identity of almost 4,000 different ingredients, some of which have been linked to serious health impacts. Many common fragrance chemicals, whether naturally or synthetically derived, can trigger asthma attacks and respiratory difficulties.

The study’s authors theorize that damage to airway linings from frequent exposure to these products, and eventual diagnosis of asthma, may be triggered by inflammatory responses of the immune system.

The study’s findings don’t prove a cause-and-effect link, but they do support the growing connection, from the beginning of gestation, between the use of cleaning products and respiratory health. In 2012, a pair of large, European cohort studies similarly reported a significant association between prenatal and infant exposure to cleaners and persistent wheezing.

Consult EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning to find household cleaning products that are safer for respiratory and overall health. The database rates more than 3,000 products based on health hazards and environmental concerns.

In addition, to reduce children’s exposure to harmful chemicals:

  1. Limit the number of household cleaning products you routinely use. Regular cleaning with soap and water or a kid-friendly DIY formula can remove most household grime, whereas odor-masking air fresheners can be a source of continuous, harmful emissions.
  2. Avoid indiscriminate use of spray cleaners. If you use one, spray it into a cloth rather than directly on the surface to reduce inhalation of the aerosolized liquid and contaminated household dust.
  3. When possible, remove children from rooms being cleaned and safely lock up cleaning supplies to deter accidental poisoning.
  4. Open windows and doors for good ventilation during and after cleaning. Frequent ventilation also inhibits mold growth and odors.
  5. Avoid products with the term “fragrance” on the label. Look for labels that fully disclose all ingredients, including fragrance chemicals. And don’t give “fragrance free” products an automatic pass. They may still contain respiratory irritants, allergens and asthmagens.