What Cleaning Products Are Doing to Your Lungs


In February 2018 the American Thoracic Society published a ground-breaking study about the surprising extent of lung damage caused in people who clean professionally or clean their own homes  (“Cleaning at Home and at Work in Relation to Lung Function Decline and Airway Obstruction.” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.) In this study spanning two decades, Norwegian researchers tracked the lung function of 6,230 people. As the scientists stated at the beginning of the article, they were starting from the knowledge that it was “reasonably well documented” that exposure to these types of cleaning products produced asthma and other respiratory symptoms in the short-term. They wanted to discover if there was a long-term effect that would become evident when they followed the cleaners for twenty years.

A useful lay version of the results appears in a February 18, 2018, article in Newsweek by Tom Porter under the title “Impact of Cleaning Products on Women’s Lungs as Damaging as 20-a-Day Cigarette Habit.” Porter quotes the lead researcher, Øistein Svanes, as explaining, “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.”

The scientists stated, “No association between lung function and cleaning was seen for males,” and noted that this result might relate to the smaller number of men in the sample.

Almost all surveys show that women report multiple chemical sensitivity at a substantially higher rate than men. One theory is that this is the result of women’s higher level of exposure to sex hormones since the same effect has been seen in female rats. This difference in susceptibility to develop chemical sensitivity may be another reason why the Norwegian researchers found no association between lung damage and cleaning in the men in their study.

In a statement related to this issue, the study’s authors noted: “[T]he greater impact seen in women (both cleaning at home and occupational cleaners) could be mediated by a different susceptibility according to sex, as is reported for other mixed chemical exposures such as tobacco smoke and other occupational exposures as wood dust, where studies have indicated that less exposure in women is need[sic] to develop illness.”

One conclusion one might draw from the study is that pouring a cleaning product onto a cloth would put the person who is cleaning at less risk than spraying the substance, which substantially increases the amount inhaled. The Newsweek article includes this somewhat startling statement: “The scientists advised avoiding the products, and instead using microfiber cloths and water,” but it seems unlikely that oily dirt or grime could be handled in this manner.

One could also argue that if further investigation indicates that men are indeed less susceptible to lung damage from these cleaning products, then they should be handling that portion of the household chores in homes.