Are Toxic Cleaning Products As Bad As Cigarettes For Your Lungs? Here's What The Science Says

Photo: Lawren Lu

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Over the past few years, we've learned a lot about the downsides of the household cleaners, beauty products, and cosmetics we use in our everyday lives. We've learned that some extremely common ingredients—like the chemical triclosan found in antibacterial soap—can have some scary-damaging effects on our health, leading the FDA to issue a warning against the ingredient.

And now a new study, published in the American Thoracic Society's Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, showed that women who are frequently exposed to cleaners at home or work have a greater decline of lung function over time. This study is significant because while short-term effects—like triggering asthma attacks—of cleaning chemicals have been well-studied, until now, we really haven't known much about what happens to our health when we're exposed to them regularly for years.

Researchers at a university in Norway followed 6.235 people for over 20 years, collecting data on their health and behavior. What they found should make us all think twice about using chemical cleaners. In one example, forced vital capacity (FVC)—a measurement frequently used to assess lung strength and capacity—declined much more quickly for women frequently exposed to cleaners. Specifically, the data showed a 4.3 mL/year faster decline for women who cleaned at home and a 7.1 mL/year faster decline for those who worked as professional cleaners.

What does this mean in real life? This increase in decline was comparable to 10 to 20 pack-years of tobacco smoking. "Pack-years" is a term used by clinicians to measure tobacco smoking and is calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked. They also found that asthma was 12 to 13 percent more common in women who frequently used cleaners. "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." Cecile Svanes, M.D., Ph.D., one of the study's authors and a professor at the university, explained to ScienceDaily.

Inhaling small particles from cleaning products for years on end can irritate the mucus membranes in the lungs and cause changes to your airways and the way you breathe. And when you think about it this way, the results of the study aren't all that shocking. Plus, the study authors also noted that using harsh chemical cleaners isn't even really necessary—as simple soap and water are normally just as effective.

If you're looking for some more interesting natural cleaning ingredients, tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide can all be used to make your own harsh-chemical-free cleaning products.

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