Common household cleaning products like air fresheners, deodorizers, furniture polish, hand sanitizers and oven cleaners can increase the chance that babies will develop asthma by the time they’re three years old. Scented spray cleaners appear to cause the most problems.
Researchers for the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Cohort Study asked parents in the homes of 2022 children to complete a questionnaire regarding how often they used 26 different household cleansers. The children ranged in age from 3-4 months old up to 3 years old. Findings indicated that infants in homes where cleaning products were used most frequently were more likely to develop a “wheeze” and asthma by the time they turned three. “Our findings add to the understanding of how early life exposures to cleaning products may be associated with the development of allergic airway disease,” said the study’s authors, which is significant because “The prevalence of childhood asthma has steadily increased over the past several decades and is now a leading cause of childhood chronic disease and admissions to hospital in developed countries.”
Lead author Jaclyn Parks said the first few months of life are critical to the development of a baby’s immune and respiratory systems. That is also when children may be most vulnerable to toxic chemicals.
“The risks of recurrent wheeze and asthma were notably higher in homes with frequent use of certain products, such as liquid or solid air fresheners, plug-in deodorizers, dusting sprays, antimicrobial hand sanitizers and oven cleaners,” Parks said in a release reported by the CBC.
The study’s findings corroborate concerns we previously raised with other public health and environmental organizations about the threats kids face from synthetic chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in household cleansers that are routinely sold as safe. “Chronic low-level exposure to the irritants in cleaning products causes chronic inflammation, triggers asthma symptoms and worsens asthma control…Young children, who spend 80%-90% of their time indoors in early life are especially vulnerable because of their increased respiration rate and proximity to the ground,” the study found.
Here Are 10 Ways to Clean House and Keep Kids Safe
The study’s authors do not suggest that parents stop cleaning their homes! There are ways to clean better, however.
- Wipe up spills and messes when they occur. First, use warm water and some fragrance-free biodegradable liquid soap you apply with a sponge rather than a spray. Then, wipe again just with warm water.
- Read the label on whatever cleaning products you buy and choose unscented brands whenever possible. This includes for dishwasher and laundry detergent as well as surface cleansers.
- Skip air “fresheners,” which are usually loaded with phthalates and other chemicals linked not only to asthma but to headaches, nausea, and even hormone disruption. If you detect an unpleasant odor in your home, find and eliminate the source. Often rotting food in the back of the refrigerator or under furniture is the culprit! Locate it, and toss it outside. Don’t light scented candles to mask odors, as they can emit their own chemical air bombs.
- Wash down walls, counters, and appliances with a sponge or soft cloth and warm soapy water rather than spray them, then wipe again with warm water and sponge or towel.
- Dust furniture with a lightly damp microfiber cloth. If you feel you must polish wood furniture, do so minimally (once a month vs. once a week).
- Use a microfiber mop to pick up dust from wood and tile floors. Again, a slightly damp mop that does not leave water behind can do a great job.
- Don’t use cleaning chemicals on furniture and floors where babies sleep and play. Clean wall-to-wall carpeting with water-based steam and skip the stain resistant treatment.
- Don’t mix chemicals! “Mixing cleaning products is a common cause of inhalation accidents that increases the risk of asthma and reactive airway dysfunction syndrome,” said the CHILD study researchers, noting that more than 100 different volatile organic compounds have been identified in cleaning products.
- Finally, don’t over do it with the cleaning! “Frequent use of cleaning products may hinder the growth of and contact with indoor microbes that are needed to prime the immune system and protect against allergic disease,” concludes the study. In other words, want your kids to stay healthy? Expose them to a little dirt!
- By the way, simply airing out a house may not significantly eliminate cleaning contaminants, since pollutants adhere to surfaces like walls and floors. That said, it has been found that using fans in bathrooms and kitchens reduces the likelihood of mold build-up and pollutants generated by frying food or even making toast.