Cleaning Products May Harm Female Workers’ Lungs as Much as Smoking a Pack a Day

Using chemical cleaning products could harm female workers’ lungs as much as  smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for 10 to 20 years, according to a new study by a team of European researchers. Women who use sprays and other cleaning products at home as little as once a week may also harm their lungs, although the study did not quantify the impact by comparison with smoking.

The study looked not at lung cancer, but lung function – how well you’re moving air in and out of your lungs. Efficient lung function is necessary to pump oxygen into the blood and carbon monoxide out. Diminished lung function is a sign of lung disease or possible future development of the disease, which can be fatal.

The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, is thought to be the first to assess occupational or domestic cleaning product exposure as it relates to the decline of lung function.

According to the American Thoracic Society, lung function naturally declines slightly every year, starting in a person’s mid-20s. An accelerated dip in lung function could mean that a person’s health will decline sooner than expected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2014. COPD encompasses a number of diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

The researchers, led by Øistein Svanes from the University of Bergen in Norway, assessed data on more than 6,000 participants in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey for more than 20 years. The researchers theorize that irritating cleaning agents, causing immunological changes and or inflammation of sensitive mucous membranes, could cause structural, cell or tissue damage in the airways when exposures persist over time.

Links to new-onset asthma and aggravated asthma, wheezing, respiratory infections and irritation from exposure to chemical cleaners are well documented in the scientific literature. Less is known about the long-term consequences of cleaning chemicals on respiratory health.

Women face disproportionate exposures to the hazardous agents in cleaning products because – as this study and data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, among others, supports – they are responsible for the majority of cleaning chores at home. Women also represent the majority of the domestic cleaning workforce.

Because federal regulation of chemicals in cleaning products is poor, consumers should choose cleaning products carefully. Consult EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which provides safety ratings for more than 2,500 products, to find cleaners that are safer for respiratory health. And follow these tips to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals:

  • Avoid spray cleaners. If you do use them, spray into a cloth rather than directly on a surface, which helps reduce your inhalation of tiny cleaning solution droplets.
  • Cleaning products are often unnecessary. Regular cleaning with simple soap and water or baking soda and water will remove usual household grime and keep mold levels in check.
  • Abrasive sponges and microfiber tools are also effective alternatives to harsh chemicals.
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