Exposure to Cleaning Products Are as Bad as Pack-a-Day Smoking
Exposure to Cleaning Products Are as Bad as Pack-a-Day Smoking
- 2,119 views
- Edition: English
- Although automobile emissions are declining, contributions to air pollution from household products is rising, now estimated to be 50 percent of volatile organic compound (VOC) air pollution
- Once VOCs migrate outside your home they react with nitrogen oxides and heat, transforming into ozone, and when exposed to sunlight, the VOCs transform into fine particulate matter
- Researchers find those who use cleaning sprays as seldom as once a week for 20 years suffer similar decline in lung function as those who smoke a pack a day for 10 to 20 years
- Irritants and VOCs in cleaning supplies are linked to long-term health damage, including cancer and reduced lung function. Short-term effects include increased asthma, skin conditions and reproductive problems
- You likely already have the best cleaning supplies in your kitchen, as you can clean most anything in your home with different combinations of white vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, lemons and coconut oil
By Dr. Mercola
With a growing understanding of the dangers of air pollution, the automobile industry has significantly reduced emissions and Americans are producing less obvious pollution than ever before. However, as air pollution does not recognize borders and can travel thousands of miles, much of the smog on the West Coast of the U.S. originates in Asia.1
A collaborative effort of more than 40 researchers looking at data from 130 countries has called air pollution the “largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today.”2 Fine particulate matter is the most studied type of air pollution and refers to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which is about 30 times smaller than the width of a strand of hair. This is small enough to pass through lung tissue and enter your bloodstream, triggering chronic inflammation and chronic diseases.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 92 percent of the global population is breathing polluted air.3 This measurement is based on outdoor sources from transportation vehicles, industrial activity, burning of household fuel and coal powered plants. Although these numbers are considerable, they are likely conservative. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, you may also expose yourself to fine particulate air pollution while cleaning your home.4
Weekly Use of Chemical Cleaning Solutions Is Comparable to Pack-a-Day Smoking
Before modern soap products were sold in the mid-1900s, most people used water and white vinegar for their household cleaning needs. Over the past 50 years, the number of soaps, detergents and cleaning solutions have grown at an amazing rate as manufacturers try to meet the demands of consumers looking for a quick, fragrant solution to a dirty problem.5
However, recent research6 from the University of Bergen in Norway demonstrates those who use chemical household cleaners as seldom as once a week experience an accelerated decline in lung function. Once-weekly use of cleaning products for 20 years may be equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 10 to 20 years.7,8
Data from over 6,000 participants, whose average age was 34 when they enrolled in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey, were analyzed. Using 20 years of data, researchers found women who used commercial cleaning solutions experienced a reduction in lung function, as measured by forced expiratory volume and forced vital capacity, much faster than those who used them more seldom or not at all.
Cleaning Products Take Heavy Toll on Lung Function
Initially, the authors were surprised by the results. Senior author Cecile Svanes, Ph.D., professor at the University of Bergen Center for International Health said:9
“However, 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. While the short-term effects of cleaning chemicals on asthma are becoming increasingly well documented, we lack knowledge of the long-term impact.
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. The take-home message of this study is that in the long run cleaning chemicals very likely cause rather substantial damage to your lungs. These chemicals are usually unnecessary; microfiber cloths and water are more than enough for most purposes.”
The authors postulate the decline in lung function could be attributed to the irritation most chemicals cause on the mucous membranes lining your lungs. Over time, this can result in persistent changes and airway remodeling. The data was adjusted for variables known to potentially bias the results, including body mass index, education and smoking history,10 The researchers acknowledged the study included very few people who did not clean, but they believe the results of the data analysis is strong.
What Are VOCs?
VOCs are a class of chemicals common to most cleaning products. These chemicals evaporate into the air as they’re used. In fact, in some instances they may even evaporate during storage. The scents you smell as you walk down the cleaning aisle at your local grocery store are the VOCs evaporating from tightly closed bottles. Examples of these are benzene, formaldehyde and acetone.11
VOCs are also present in home improvement products such as paints and paint strippers, pesticides, varnishes and glues. Formaldehyde, a VOC found in composite wood products, building materials and household products, is a colorless gas at room temperature and has a strong odor. While it is a known carcinogen,12 banned in Japan and Sweden and limited in Europe, there is no restriction on its use in the U.S.13
Formaldehyde, or formaldehyde releasing products, can be found under a number of different names on product labels.14 Unfortunately, many other products may also contain formaldehyde, including lotions, shampoos, cosmetics and even toothpaste. Product labels will rarely if ever contain the word formaldehyde, but rather a synonym for a formaldehyde-releasing chemical. Some of these names include formalin, Methanal, Quaternium 15, methylene oxide and formic aldehyde.15
Over time, exposure to VOCs in common household products have been linked to an increased risk of cancer in animals,16 and have been identified as a significant portion of indoor air pollution. In the short term, VOCs are associated with eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as shortness of breath, headaches and fatigue. Higher concentrations may also irritate your lungs and cause damage to your liver, kidney or central nervous system.17
Health effects related to VOCs are dependent upon the concentration of the chemicals in the air and the length of your exposure. So, it’s not so surprising that studies analyzing these effects over 20 years are finding damage to lung tissue and reduced lung function by those exposed to cleaning chemicals week after week.
Personal Products Release as Much Air Pollution as Cars but Remain Unregulated
In another recent study,18,19 researchers looked at consumer products containing compounds refined from petroleum. Interestingly, despite the knowledge that many of these are carcinogenic, consumer products are actually designed to release VOCs into the air as they evaporate. Once these chemicals migrate outside your home they react with nitrogen oxides and heat, transforming into ozone, and when exposed to sunlight, the VOCs transform into fine particulate matter.
In a recent air quality evaluation in the Los Angeles area, researchers found the amount of VOCs released by consumer and industrial products are actually two to three times higher than previously estimated.20,21 The team also found levels of ethanol and acetone were higher than expected, two chemicals found in personal care products and not car emissions.
While the list of VOCs is exceedingly long, study team member Jessica Gilman, a research chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), notes that the easiest way to identify VOC-containing products is to look for the word “fragrances” on the label, as up to 2,000 different VOCs can be listed simply as “fragrance.”22 Two popular ones are limonene and beta-Pinene, frequently used in cleaning products and air fresheners as they smell like lemon and pine trees.
The study was inspired by earlier measurements in Los Angeles demonstrating concentrations of VOCs were higher than could be predicted by burning fossil-fuels alone.23 Previous estimates by the EPA found 75 percent of VOC emissions were from vehicles, but the new study places the split closer to 50 percent. These findings indicate new air quality models may have to be adopted in order to reduce the increasing pattern of emission from consumer products.24
Addressing Your Indoor Pollution Is Important for Both Personal and Environmental Health
Lead author of the study, Brian McDonald, from the University of Colorado at Boulder and NOAA, commented on the results, saying,25“Over time, the transportation sector has been getting cleaner when it comes to emissions of air pollutants. And as these emissions come down, the sources of air pollution are becoming more diverse.”
These findings also highlight the necessity to address your indoor air quality, as VOCs are typically seven times higher in indoor air than outdoors.26 At the end of this article, I list a number of helpful strategies to improve the quality of your indoor air. A key, however, is to stop introducing toxic chemicals into your home, and cleaning products are a major source.
Keeping VOC-absorbing plants in your home may also be a simple yet strategic way to reduce your health risks. Recent research27 led by chemistry professor Vadoud Niri at State University of New York at Oswego has confirmed the air-filtering qualities of several plants. Jade plant, for example, is among the most effective for absorbing the VOC toluene, present in many paints and lacquers.
Air Quality Regulation May Be at Risk
According to this study, the industrial products giving off the most VOCs are pesticides, printing inks, cleaning agents and adhesives.28In the case of pesticides, they not only release VOCs, but also nitrogen oxides with which VOCs react to produce ozone. The authors commented that if the product has a smell, it’s a giveaway it likely gives off VOCs. Brent Stephens, an indoor air quality expert from the Illinois Institute of Technology, commented on the study by email to The Washington Post, saying:29
“These results have important implications for how and what emissions we regulate. We have traditionally focused on transportation and industrial emissions to the outdoor environment.
[Volatile chemical products] are now relatively more important emission sources, and they come from both indoor and outdoor sources (and some primarily from indoor sources), although we don’t regulate the vast majority of indoor environments. We typically think of outdoor air pollution as an outdoor problem, but this study demonstrates (quantitatively) that it’s more complicated than that.”
Unfortunately, cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency budget may have a significant impact on the regulation of indoor and outdoor air quality in coming years. While the agency studies air quality and atmospheric chemistry, to date regulations have been weak. Additional budgetary cuts can only further weaken the agency’s stated purpose to “protect human health and the environment.”30
Short-Term Health Effects of Cleaning May Be More Immediately Evident
While the featured study evaluated the effects of cleaning solutions over 20 years, you may suffer more immediate health consequences when using these chemical solutions. A study published in the BMJ evaluating exposure to cleaning products against short-term respiratory effects in women with asthma, found the use of specific products at work exacerbated the participants condition.31
Data collection occurred over 15 days for 21 women, including self-reported symptoms; use of cleaning products and lung function were measured three times daily using a handheld spirometer. With current medications, symptoms of asthma can often be controlled. However, with chronic exposure, irritants increase asthmatic symptoms, thus increasing your risk of long-term effects associated with asthma, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung infections and scarred lung tissue.32
Cleaning chemicals and their vapors are also associated with skin symptoms such as redness, itching and skin cancers. Long-term exposure may lead to nervous system damage, low sperm count in men and irregularities in menstruation or miscarriage in women.33The most acutely dangerous cleaning products are corrosive drain cleaners, acidic toilet bowl cleaners and oven cleaners.34
Corrosive chemicals can cause severe burns, while chlorine bleach and ammonia-containing products produce fumes that are irritating to your eyes, throat and lungs. Additionally, chlorine and ammonia pose a further threat as they react with other chemicals to form damaging gases. Fragrances added to many cleaning solutions can also irritate your respiratory system and trigger headaches.
Effective Nontoxic Cleaning Solutions Likely Already in Your Home
One of the primary reasons for cleaning your home regularly is to clear out many of the toxic chemicals accumulating in your dust. A clean and decluttered home is a sanctuary from the outside world, but if you use rubber gloves and spray harsh chemicals to get the job done, you’re doing damage to your health and to the health of the ones you love.
The good news is you really don’t need chemical cleansers to keep your home spick-and-span. Natural products you can use to clean your home from top to bottom include baking soda, white vinegar, lemons, Castile soap and coconut oil. The addition of essential oils will help boost cleaning power and provide a fresh scent as well, without risking your health. Discover some of my favorite homemade cleaning solutions in my previous article, “Keep a Clean House With Nontoxic Cleaners.”
Strategies to Improve Your Indoor Air Quality
Most of us, regardless of where we live, can benefit from addressing our indoor air quality. If you’ve been putting this off, look through the list of action items below, and commit to implementing one or more of them. If need be, schedule it in your calendar so you don’t forget.
Not only will you reduce your risk of developing chronic health conditions, research shows improving air quality also benefits your mental health by reducing psychological stress.35 Most of these strategies are very cost effective in the short run and may help significantly reduce your health care costs long-term.
Use a high-quality air purifier
Not all filters work with the same efficiency to remove pollutants from your home and no one filter can remove all pollutants. See this previous article for an explanation of the different types of air filters to meet your specific needs.
Overall, photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) is one of the best technologies available. Rather than merely filtering the air, PCO actually cleans the air using ultraviolet light. Unlike filters, which simply trap pollutants, PCO transforms the pollutants into nontoxic substances. In addition to using them in your home, portable air purifiers are available to take with you when you work or travel.
Install a water filter
Chlorine becomes airborne during a shower, and combined with high humidity levels in the bathroom increases the amount of chlorine you inhale. Shop for a filter with NSF/ANSI 177: Shower Filtration Systems-Aesthetic Effects. These filters are tested by a third party to effectively remove chlorine.36,37
Add air purifying plants
Plants remove pollutants by absorbing them through their leaves and roots, in much the same way they clean the outdoor air from the pollution given off by manufacturing plants, cars and heating systems.38 The top 10 plants to improve air quality are39 aloe, English ivy, rubber tree, peace lily, snake plant, bamboo palm, philodendron, spider plant, red-edge dracaena and golden pathos.
Open your windows
One of the easiest ways to reduce the pollutants in your home is to open your windows. Opening windows on the opposing sides of your home will effectively create cross ventilation. Because most newer homes are energy efficient and have little leakage, even opening a window 15 minutes a day can improve your indoor air quality.
Take off your shoes
Taking off your shoes at the door will help prevent tracking dust and toxic particles into your home.
Remove harsh cleaning products and scented household products
Most cleaning products contain chemicals that contribute to poor indoor air quality. Ditto for air fresheners and scented candles. Fortunately, there are plenty of safe and effective options. Soap and water, or vinegar and baking soda, for example, can serve as inexpensive alternatives.40
The strategies outlined in my previous article, “Are Household Products Killing Us?” help reduce your toxic load. Consider trying some of these suggestions to clean your home using simple products you may already have in your cabinets.
•Borax: This form of baking soda acts as a whitener and will boost your detergent power. Add between one-fourth cup and 1 cup to your laundry, depending on the size of your load.
•Vinegar: A weak acid, this common liquid is a natural cleaning substance that also deodorizes. Consider adding between one-fourth cup and one-half cup to your laundry with your detergent and wash as usual. Don’t mix the borax with vinegar in the same load as they neutralize each other. Vinegar is also a good general all-purpose cleaner for your kitchen and bathroom, and works great for cleaning mirrors and windows.
•Homemade scouring powder: Make your own safe scouring powder for soap scum in the bath by combining two parts baking soda, and one part each of borax and salt.
Powders — be they cleansing scrubs, talcum or other personal care powders — can be problematic as they float and linger in the air after each use. Many powders are allergens due to their tiny size, and can cause respiratory problems.
Air out dry-cleaned clothes
Avoid hanging dry-cleaned clothing in your closet as soon as you bring them home. Instead, hang them outside for an entire day or two if possible. Better yet, see if there’s an eco-friendly dry cleaner in your city that uses some of the newer dry cleaning technologies, such as liquid CO2.
Regularly service fuel burning appliances
A poorly maintained furnace, space heater, hot water heater, water softener, natural gas heater or stove and other fuel burning appliances may leak carbon dioxide or nitrogen dioxide. Have your appliances serviced per the manufacturer’s recommendations to reduce potential indoor air pollution. You may also need to upgrade your furnace filters. Today, there are more elaborate filters capable of trapping more particulates.
Regularly clean your air conditioner
Your air conditioner may harbor dangerous bacteria. On several occasions, outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease have been traced back to contaminated air conditioner units. Most people don’t even consider their uncared-for air conditioner might be toxic and sapping their health. The compressor might be outside your house but, inside, often in the attic or basement, is usually where the condensation occurs.
The pan that sits underneath the handler to collect it is connected to a drain tube. The pan can get clogged fairly frequently, which creates an extremely friendly environment for harmful bacteria to grow. The transition from cold to warm weather can also create water condensation that then sits there, turning stagnant. It may even cause scaly buildup on metal pieces, indicating the accumulation of a potentially deadly bacteria.
Consider a heat recovery ventilator (HRV)
Because most newer homes are more airtight and therefore more energy efficient, air exchange with outdoor air is more difficult. Some builders are now installing HRV systems to help prevent condensation and mold growth and improve indoor air quality.41
If you can’t afford to install an HRV, open your windows and run the bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans to vent your indoor air to the outside. You don’t have to do this for more than 15 to 20 minutes each day and should do it summer and winter at times when the temperature outside is closest to your indoor temperature.
In humid locales, use a dehumidifier
Mold grows in damp and humid environments. Use a dehumidifier and air conditioner to keep the humidity indoors below 50 percent. Make sure to clean both units regularly.
Never allow smokers indoors
Ask smokers to go outside. Secondhand smoke from cigarettes, pipes and cigars contains over 200 known carcinogenic chemicals, endangering your health. The same applies to e-cigarettes and vaping devices.
Test your home for radon
Radon is a colorless, odorless gas linked to lung cancer. It may be trapped under your home during construction and can leak into your air system over time. Radon testing kits are a quick and cheap way to determine if radon is an issue in your home.
Invest in a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner
Standard bag or bagless vacuum cleaners are a major contributor to poor indoor air quality. A regular vacuum cleaner typically has about a 20-micron tolerance. Although that’s tiny, far more microscopic particles flow right through the vacuum cleaner than it actually picks up.
Beware of cheaper knock-offs that profess to have “HEPA-like” filters — get the real deal. HEPA filters do a great job picking up tiny particles, but some are too small even for a HEPA. These include VOCs. To filter these out, activated carbon filters are typically recommended.42
Avoid storing chemicals indoors
Avoid storing paints, adhesives, solvents and other harsh chemicals in your house. If you must have them, keep them in a detached garage or shed.
Use nontoxic cookware
Avoid using cookware with nonstick coating, as these pots and pans can release toxins into the air when heated.