Cleaning’s Hidden Threat: The Link Between Common Products and Occupational Asthma
Exploring the connection between widely used cleaning agents and the surge in respiratory issues among cleaning and maintenance workers, and why safer practices and greater awareness in workplace settings are needed.
Asthma is a non-communicable, chronic respiratory disease characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways. Affecting approximately 360 million people worldwide, asthma is often developed in childhood and can be caused by environmental factors (allergens), viral infections and/or family history, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/asthma).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 17 percent of all adult-onset asthma cases in the United States are related to occupational exposures. A variation of asthma, “occupational asthma,” has become a public health issue. More than 400 agents are associated with occupational asthma. While a number of factors contribute to the development of occupational asthma, the use of cleaning and disinfecting products in the workplace has emerged as a significant source of exposure.
Asthma and Cleaning Products
Several studies have suggested a higher prevalence of asthma among cleaning and maintenance workers compared to other occupational groups. A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that professional cleaning work was associated with an increased risk of adult-onset asthma (Mapp, Boschetto, Maestrelli, & Fabri, 2005).
Another study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health reported a higher risk of asthma among cleaning professionals, particularly among those exposed to specific cleaning agents such as bleach and ammonia (Sejbaek et. al., 2022). Cleaning and maintenance workers often have direct and prolonged exposure to cleaning products, thus increasing their exposure and risk of developing respiratory diseases like asthma.
Cleaning products play an important role in maintaining cleanliness and hygiene in the workplace. The use of such products was never more prevalent than during the recent pandemic; however, it’s troubling to learn that many of the chemicals found in cleaning products used to protect us from other diseases can induce asthma. This emphasizes the importance of understanding exposure risks to workers. Low-moderate exposures to inhalation irritants repeatedly can cause workers to develop asthma over time.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or chemicals that can vaporize into the air, are prevalent in most cleaning products, from air fresheners to disinfectant sprays and wipes to window and glass cleaners, and even carpet cleaners. Commonly found chemical compounds in these products include formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ammonia, sodium hypochlorite, and chlorine. Additionally, fragrances and perfumes may contain a mixture of chemicals, including phthalates, alcohols, and synthetic musks, that can also irritate the respiratory tract.
This article originally appeared in the issue of .