What you should know about asthma and everyday cleaning
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of asthma in the world – second only to the UK - and those rates are on the rise. According to our Asthma Foundation, more than 500,000 New Zealanders take asthma medication, including one in seven children and one in nine adults.
One of the reasons behind the increase in asthma symptoms is believed to be the hygiene hypothesis - our fear of germs and subsequent over-cleaning in our homes. Research has shown a connection between too much hygiene and illnesses that develop because our immune systems have weakened due to lack of exposure to germs. Asthma and allergies are among these conditions.
Asthma is a condition that causes airways to tighten and swell when a sufferer’s sensitivities are triggered. Identifying triggers is an important step to manage it, and there are several possible triggers. They include environmental allergens like dust and mould, pollen, indoor air pollution, cold and damp air, pets, cigarette smoke, fly sprays, air fresheners, strong perfumes and aerosol cleaning sprays. Some building materials, furniture and carpets also give off fumes that might make asthma worse.
As well as research that connects over-cleaning with weakened immunity and conditions like asthma, other studies have looked into links between home cleaning products and asthma in other ways.
A 2012 study in Environment Health Perspectives delved into 50 categories of cleaning and personal care products to look for 66 chemicals linked with asthma flare-ups and/or hormone disruption. It found 55 chemicals, including triclosan (found in anti-bacterial soap); alkylphenols (found in some detergents); fragrances; glycol ethers (found in some cleaning compounds and cosmetics); and ethanolamines (found in some cleaning products). And a 2008 study of 7000 families, published in the European Respiratory Journal, said pregnant mothers who used a lot of household cleaners might increase the risk of their child developing asthma.
A US Society of Toxicology paper acknowledged a link between asthma and exposure to household or industrial cleaning products like ammonia, disinfectants and air fresheners, but says there is debate over whether inhaling household chemicals is an asthma trigger or whether household over-cleaning, as mentioned above, alters the immune system and results in asthma.
The Environmental Working Group’s research into 2000 cleaning products sold in America found fumes from some of these products might induce asthma in otherwise healthy people, as well as triggering attacks in people already diagnosed with it. It says asthmatics can be particularly sensitive to air contaminants, including those found in household cleaners – and its assessment of the 2000 products found 438 had at least one chemical that the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics has identified as an asthmagen.
Among the chemicals the EWG said could worsen asthma or trigger it are quarternary ammonium compounds such as benzalkonium chloride, added to antibacterial cleaners, ethanolamines, used in many detergents, and ammonium hydroxide.
Triclosan, benzalkonium chloride, ammonium hydroxide and triethanolamine are among the ingredients we choose not to use in our products. You can read more here about others we choose to avoid. We also offer a range of fragrance free products.
According to Asthma UK, many everyday cleaning products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), with some research showing these can irritate airways to trigger asthma. They can be found in furniture polish, air fresheners, carpet and oven cleaners, among other products, it says.
The organisation says spray cleaners are more likely to trigger asthma than liquid cleaners, because you breathe them in from the air.
The steps below might help manage asthma symptoms when doing household cleaning and using every day products, it says.
- Consider using a damp cloth and water to clean or look for products that have lower levels of VOCs
- Avoid fragranced products if you find the smell of cleaning products triggers symptoms
- Use liquid or solid cleaning products because spray cleaners are more easily inhaled
- Use as little of your cleaning product as possible
- Open windows when cleaning so that the room is well ventilated.