As the weather warms, your cottage’s streaked windows and dusty corners became harder to abide. But before you break out the spring cleaning products, you may want to clear the kids from the room. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal revealed that the use of cleaning products may be linked to asthma, particularly in children.
The study, which is associated with the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development Cohort Study, run out of McMaster University, has been observing 2,022 children since they were in utero (the children are turning eight this year). The parents of the children were asked to fill out a questionnaire about the frequency of use of 26 household cleaning products when the children were three to four months old. A clinical assessment was then performed at age three to document the effects of the cleaning products.
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“What we found,” says Tim Takaro, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, and one of the study’s lead researchers, “was that for these 2,022 babies that were in our study, if they were exposed to a lot of cleaning products at three months of age, when they were three years old, they had more asthma.”
At three months, children are particularly susceptible to the fragrances and corrosive chemicals commonly found in cleaning products. The chemicals irritate “the lining of the lung of a young child and change the way their immune system develops, making them more susceptible to getting asthma later in life,” Takaro says.
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But children aren’t the only ones susceptible to cleaning products. Takaro says they can affect the respiratory systems of adults as well. “This is reported in occupational literature,” he says, “that people who work cleaning hotels or hospitals or have a lot of exposure to cleaning products get more asthma.”
Jaclyn Parks, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University and one of the study’s lead researchers, first started looking into the effects of cleaning products on the respiratory system during her undergrad, bringing her ideas and research to Takaro. “This is a thing that people have looked at in Europe and part of the UK, and there have been a couple of air exposure studies, but nothing from this perspective,” Parks says, referring to their work with young children.
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Since it is one of the first studies of its kind, there are still some unknowns around exactly which products and chemicals to avoid. But Parks does confirm that there are “certain chemicals that we know are corrosive and can cause more damage than others.” She lists cleaning products that are sprayed, corrosive, or have fragrance as some of the worst. This includes products such as Drano.
Takaro adds that in North America, an ingredient does not have to be reported on the bottle if it’s less than two per cent of the make-up. But fragrances are almost always less than two per cent. If you are cleaning with chemicals, make sure to remove children, ventilate the area, and wipe down any surfaces you’ve cleaned with water.
To be safe, Takaro and Parks advise avoiding chemical-based cleaning products altogether and instead using products with natural ingredients that are water soluble. “Soap and water is a great cleaning agent,” Takaro says. “And probably one of the safest.”