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article imageEssential Science: Cleaning chemicals linked to lung cancer

By Tim Sandle     Feb 19, 2018 in Science
The association between household cleaning chemicals and respiratory problems has been raised over the past decade. A new study from the University of Bergen in Norway raises concerns about the longer-term impact.
The new research indicates that people who use cleaning products, in spray form, on a regular basis risk causing long-term damage to their lungs. The extent of this depends on the chemicals in the sprays. Here products containing irritating chemicals like ammonia are connected to the long-term decline in lung function.
In some instances, with cleaners who are required to clean surfaces regularly (such as at a busyness premise) the decline in lung function is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes each day.
With the research, the scientists looked at 6,235 men and women based in Norway. The subjects had an average age of 34, and they were tracked over two decades. The subjects were part of the wider European Community Respiratory Health Survey (ECRHS).
A cleaner walks past a Microsoft office building in Beijing on July 31  2014
A cleaner walks past a Microsoft office building in Beijing on July 31, 2014
Greg Baker, AFP/File
The study looked at women who carried out regular cleaning using spray detergents and disinfectants and women who did not carry out this activity very often. The focus was with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
This assessment found that with the women who did perform regular cleaning, the forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1), which is the the amount of air a person can forcibly exhale in one second, declined. The rate of decline was 3.6 milliliters per in women who regularly cleaned at home using spray products and 3.9 ml/year in women who were employed as cleaners.
Furthermore, the forced vital capacity, which is the total amount of air a person can forcibly exhale, decreased 4.3 ml/year in women who cleaned at home and 7.1 ml/year in women who worked as cleaners. These declines in function were as compared with women who did not perform cleaning tasks regularly.
In addition, cases of asthma were also more common in women who cleaned at home at 12.3 percent compared with 13.7 percent for women who were employed as cleaners; which contrasted with a rate of 9.6 percent among women who did not use spray products on a regular basis.
Equivalent effects were seen with men; however, the male population was too low to draw data of great significance, reflecting the fact that cleaning (whether at home or at a workplace) remains a feminized occupation.
Speaking with the newspaper The Daily Express, the lead researcher Professor Cecile Svanes stated: "While the short-term effects of cleaning chemicals on asthma are becoming increasingly well documented, we lack knowledge of the long-term impact.”
Meticulous cleaning of hospitals: wards  treatment rooms and operating theatres  is necessary to pre...
Meticulous cleaning of hospitals: wards, treatment rooms and operating theatres, is necessary to prevent the spread of MRSA and other life-threatening infections.
The researcher explains further: “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 products of concern were those containing quaternary ammonium compounds (‘Quats’). Here many people who use spray disinfectants inhale particles when the trigger mechanism of spray bottles is depressed, inhaling some of the generated vapor.
Speaking with The Daily Mail about the study, Professor Jørgen Vestbo, from the University of Manchester, noted there were steps people could take to minimize the risks. One recommendation is to use wipes rather than sprays, since wipes generate have fewer airborne particles. A second recommendation is to open doors and windows during and after cleaning to improve the good ventilation.
The study has been published in the journal American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. The research paper is titled “Generic Respiratory Symptoms and Branded Lung Diseases: Same Difference?”
The research adds to previously reported concerns about the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in cleaning products. These types of chemicals evaporate into the air when they are used, including acetone, benzene and formaldehyde. Best advice is to avoid breathing in too many VOCs on a regular basis.
Chemicals of concern include benzalkonium chloride (a quaternary ammonium compound), which is a common disinfectant found in household cleaners used on floors and hard services. In addition, there are chlorine-based agents (like sodium hypochlorite), which is the active ingredient in bleach. Also of concern as the perfumes added to cleaning agents such as limonene (which produces a ‘citrus’ scent). To add to this, there are chemicals called isothiazolinones, which are added to some washing up liquids and laundry products.
The ECRHS was initiated in response to an increase in asthma prevalence during the 1980s, especially due to concerns that external, environmental factors were associated with the development of the disease. The survey is now on its third generation. The aims of the ECRHS III are to describe change in respiratory symptom prevalence in adults as they age and to assess sensitization to common allergens. Furthermore, the study aims to determine asthma is influenced by any observed changes in relation to environmental factors.
Essential Science
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week the topic of nanotechnology and the development of a new generation of antimalarial drugs was discussed.
The week before we looked at wearable fitness devices and reviewed research that cast doubt on the accuracy of the instrumentation.
More about Chemicals, Respiratory, Lungs, Infection, Medical
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