The Dirt on Cleaning
Don’t be fooled by cool containers, fresh scents and disinfecting muscle. Here’s how to clean – without polluting your air.
For many people with allergies and asthma, regular cleaning can help keep symptoms at bay; and there’s nothing quite like giving your home a thorough once-over. But depending on what products you use, that sheen can come with a dark underside – so before you reach for those mops, brooms and buckets and hit the grocery store cleaning aisle, read on.
In The Soup
With their cheerful advertisements and colorful bottles, it’s easy to forget that many household cleaners are chemical soups that may set off respiratory and skin reactions in people who are sensitive. But not only are they triggers, Massachusetts research scientist Anila Bello says they can actually cause new sensitivities to form.
Bello was helping Boston-area hospitals switch to safer cleaning compounds, and in the process spoke with nurses who were experiencing respiratory irritation and asthma symptoms when they entered rooms that had just been cleaned. While trying to pinpoint the cause, Bello – the author of several studies, including “Quantitative assessment of airborne exposures generated during common cleaning tasks: a pilot study” in the journal Environmental Health – was inspired not only to research the chemicals found in hospital settings, but also in our homes.
Some of the biggest culprits, she says, are disinfectants, especially ones that contain quaternary ammonium compounds – dubbed “quats” – which can harm far more than the germs they’re meant to clean up. “These disinfectants are designed to kill bacteria, and that’s why they are important in terms of adverse health effects in human beings, because they are dangerous to life,” explains Bello, who is also researching the germ-killing effectiveness of various green cleaners as well as do-it-yourself alternatives like vinegar.
Disinfection is necessary in some situations. But Bello says most consumers don’t understand that many of the chemicals are only effective if you first thoroughly clean the surface, then apply the disinfectant and let it sit for 10 minutes – then rinse thoroughly. In other words, many consumers are getting the chemical hit, but not the disinfection.
“People want to use disinfectants to protect themselves, but at the same time, concern for their health is pushing us to think, ‘Do we really need them?’” she says. “We are protecting ourselves without any scientific evidence there.”
Dr. Susan Tarlo agrees. As a professor in the department of Medicine and Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto, she has studied the health effects of cleaning products, and treats patients with work-related symptoms.
She says that pinpointing exactly which specific chemicals cause problems can be tricky since cleaning products tend to contain dozens of compounds. But known asthma triggers include bleach and ammonia, (which create harmful compounds if mixed); sodium hydroxide (often found in oven cleaners); amines (found in polishes, wax strippers, and general purpose cleaners); and products containing colophony (pine resin) and limonene (used in lemon scent).
The effects are made worse when they aren’t used as directed. “Some people really go overboard and think the more they use, the better, but they can be quite irritating to the airways – especially if they are sprayed in the air, because the amount breathed in is usually higher,” Tarlo says. Poor ventilation and a lack of protective equipment such as masks and gloves only compounds the effect. “Many of the reports have been on professional cleaners whose exposures are likely to be greater, but even if somebody is cleaning their own home, especially if they are doing it intensively, they might feel the effects.”
So you spray a little chemical disinfectant, glass cleaner or all-purpose cleanser onto your counter, sink, floor, or bathtub; it smells for a little while, then dissappears, right?
Not so fast, says Bello. Even cleaning chemicals that aren’t naturally volatile – that is, they don’t become airborne on their own – may become attached to dust and get into the air, then into people’s airways. They can also be absorbed through the skin. Some cause respiratory tract irritation and asthma in high concentrations, while others have been linked with cancer or reproductive problems.
What’s worse is that, even well after cleaning, the chemicals can react with ozone and other substances in the air and form what are called secondary emissions – chemical combinations such as formaldehyde and other respiratory irritants that are even more hazardous than their primary sources.