Common cleaning products can trigger asthma symptoms: Study

Advocates developing OHS practices to limit exposures

(Reuters Health) — Fumes from cleaning products used at work can make existing asthma worse, according to a new study of professional cleaning service employees.

Products such as bleach, glass cleaner, detergents and air fresheners exacerbated asthma-related symptoms for the women, and their reduced lung function lasted until the morning after exposure, in some cases getting worse with time.

"These results support the importance of developing workplace health and safety practices designed to limit exposures to irritant chemicals in cleaning products," the study team writes in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

A wide variety of cleaning products are used by workers in settings like offices, factories and hospitals, write David Vizcaya, of the University of Montreal Hospital Research Center, and his colleagues. Professional cleaning services are necessary to clean, disinfect, and control dust and mold on surfaces, but a number of studies in recent years have reported associations between exposure to cleaning products and asthma, the researchers note.

Vizcaya and his team evaluated respiratory symptoms over about two weeks in 21 women who had asthma symptoms within the past year, eight of whom also had a longer history of asthma. All were employees of cleaning companies in Barcelona, Spain.

During the study period, the women recorded the different types of cleaning products they used at work as well as how they used them, such as in spray or liquid form. The list included 14 different generic cleaning agents including bleach, detergents, degreasers, carpet cleaners and waxes and polishes.

On average, the women used just over two different types of cleaning products each day, and on about three out of every four working days the women were exposed to at least one strong irritant, such as ammonia, bleach or hydrochloric acid.

The researchers found that during this period, 17 women reported having at least one upper respiratory tract symptom, such as sneezing, scratchy throat and runny nose. Eighteen women also reported at least one lower respiratory tract symptom, such as coughing, wheezing or chest pain.

There was a stronger association between exposure to cleaning products and developing these symptoms among women with a history of asthma, as compared to the rest of the group.

But due to the small number of participants in the study, the authors caution that these results should be interpreted "carefully," and that more research is needed.

Other recent studies have linked the chlorine in swimming pools and in bleach used for cleaning homes and schools to asthma and respiratory infections among swimmers and school children.

The risk from cleaning products is not only seen among professional cleaners, said Norman H. Edelman, senior consultant for scientific affairs at the American Lung Association (ALA). Using these products can be dangerous in the home as well.

"The ALA recommends that at least for the home, people use non-toxic cleaners, especially for those with asthma and allergies," Edelman told Reuters Health.

"In an attempt to be vigorous, many people use chlorine bleaches and lye at home, and this can be very irritating to the lungs," Edelman said. "And it is usually not really necessary to use products like this. If people are going to use these products, they often don't know how to protect themselves."

For instance, mixing cleaning products that contain bleach and ammonia can cause severe lung damage, he noted.

In the industrial setting, protection for workers may vary considerably, he added. Safety regulations will not only vary between countries, but also depending on the type of industry.

"Many of the people working in this industry are day labourers, they are not unionized and may be afraid to lose their jobs if they complain or ask for protective gear," Edelman said.

In a large corporation or medical center, these workers may be unionized and safety regulations will probably be more strongly adhered to, but even then, the type of protective gear will make a difference.

"Particle masks are not too expensive or cumbersome to use, but they are not going to keep the fumes out," he said. "To keep out the fumes, they may need more cumbersome equipment."

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