The health hazards of cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants

October 20, 2020

hand wearing gloves cleaning

Government regulations require a limited labeling of cleaning products that kill bacteria, viruses, or mold. Only the active ingredient chemicals in sanitizers, disinfectants, and fungicides have to be listed on the product label. Manufacturers also use words such as “natural,” “non-toxic,” and “green” to distinguish their products; however, these labels are poorly defined by government and rarely enforced. 

Product labels can be misleading

Researchers have found that cleaning products labeled as “natural,” “non-toxic,” and “green” often have as many hazardous chemicals as conventional cleaning products. The simplification of information on labels makes it difficult for the consumer to make wise choices when purchasing cleaning products.

Science is still uncovering the health effects of chemical ingredients

We are constantly learning more about the potential health problems of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products. Most cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products are a mixture of chemical ingredients. More than 85,000 commercial chemicals have been developed in the last 60 years. When testing is done, it is normally done on a single chemical. In our daily activities, we are typically exposed to a mixture of chemicals, however, scientists are still uncovering the effects of being exposed to more than one chemical at a time.

We do not know much about the long-term health effects of most products, as these health effects do not show up for months or years, it makes sense to limit one’s exposure to chemicals where you can.

Asthma triggers commonly associated with cleaning products

Chemicals can affect air quality and trigger health problems like asthma. For example, 11% of people with work-related asthma in California connected their asthma to cleaning and disinfecting products. Over half of these patients never had asthma before being exposed to the products – inhaling the products caused their asthma. Four out of the 5 people diagnosed with work-related asthma in this study were bystanders. They were not working directly with cleaning or disinfecting chemicals. They were simply nearby and exposed to them. This is a good example of how a chemical in our environment can indirectly pose consequences on our health.

Product use influences exposure

The toxicity of the chemical is one thing to consider, but how a product is used can increase exposure, as well. Is the product used as intended? Is it a spray or an aerosol? Does it evaporate easily into the air we breathe?   Where is the product being used? Is it a small space? Is it well ventilated? Can windows or doors be opened when using the product?

Common cleaning ingredients and their health effects

Here are some common cleaning chemicals to consider avoiding and their health effects:

Ammonia and bleach (sodium hypochlorite) cause asthma in workers who breathe too much of it in their jobs. They can trigger asthma attacks in people who already have asthma. They can also irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.

Quaternary ammonium compounds (also known as QUATs, QACs, or QATs) are not volatile compounds, but using them as sprays can cause nose and throat irritation. Benzalkonium chloride is a severe eye irritant and causes and triggers asthma. Exposures to QUATs may cause allergic skin reactions. Use of QUATs has been associated with the growth of bacteria that are resistant to disinfection. Sometimes this resistance also transfers to antibiotics. In laboratory studies, QUATs were found to damage genetic material an indicator of cancer.

Triclosan is a suspected endocrine disruptor and may lead to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. It also considered an environmental toxin.

Phthalates are commonly used in fragrances found in air fresheners and cleaning and sanitizing products. They are endocrine disruptors. Research indicates that phthalates increase the risk of allergies and asthma and can affect children's neurodevelopment and thyroid function. Studies show links between phthalates in mothers to abnormal genital development in boys. Phthalates have been found in human urine, blood, semen, amniotic fluid, and breast milk. 

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that vaporize at room temperature. Many VOCs released by cleaning supplies have been linked to chronic respiratory problems such as asthma, allergic reactions, and headaches.

Fragrances are mixtures of many chemicals, including VOCs. They can contain up to 3,000 separate ingredients. There is no requirement that fragrance ingredients be listed on the product label. Many of these chemicals can trigger asthma and allergies. Many fragrance chemicals are not filtered out by water treatment and end up in the environment.

Terpenes are chemicals found in pine, lemon, and orange oils that are used in many cleaning and disinfecting products as well as in fragrances. Terpenes form very small particles like those found in smog and haze that can irritate the lungs and may cause other health problems.

Substitution is an effective strategy to reduce exposure

Substitution is an effective strategy for using cleaning products that contain fewer hazardous chemicals. 

There are third party certifiers in Canada and the USA (EcoLogo, Design for the Environment and Green Seal) who have used science-based criteria for health and the environment. Look for their seals on products. If a product does not carry a third-party certification logo, look for a non-aerosol, no overwhelming chemical odor, fragrance-free or dye-free. 

Not all substitution strategies involve a chemical product. Physical modifications to facilities, equipment, and processes can also be part of an effective substitution strategy to reduce exposure to infectious disease; as can our personal behaviour. 

Some of the most effective ways of reducing spread of infectious diseases are found in our personal behaviours. 

Remember before using any product to match the product for the level of cleaning, sanitation or disinfection you require. Follow the instructions on the label. Follow the precautions like wearing gloves and proper ventilation. 

Happy cleaning!