With a growing understanding of the dangers of air pollution, the automobile industry has significantly reduced emissions and Americans are producing less obvious pollution than ever before. However, as air pollution does not recognize borders and can travel thousands of miles, much of the smog on the West Coast of the U.S. originates in Asia.
A collaborative effort of more than 40 researchers looking at data from 130 countries has called air pollution the “largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today.” Fine particulate matter is the most studied type of air pollution and refers to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which is about 30 times smaller than the width of a strand of hair. This is small enough to pass through lung tissue and enter your bloodstream, triggering chronic inflammation and chronic diseases.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 92 percent of the global population is breathing polluted air. This measurement is based on outdoor sources from transportation vehicles, industrial activity, burning of household fuel and coal powered plants. Although these numbers are considerable, they are likely conservative. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, you may also expose yourself to fine particulate air pollution while cleaning your home.
Weekly Use of Chemical Cleaning Solutions Is Comparable to Pack-a-Day Smoking
Before modern soap products were sold in the mid-1900s, most people used water and white vinegar for their household cleaning needs. Over the past 50 years, the number of soaps, detergents and cleaning solutions have grown at an amazing rate as manufacturers try to meet the demands of consumers looking for a quick, fragrant solution to a dirty problem.
However, recent research6 from the University of Bergen in Norway demonstrates those who use chemical household cleaners as seldom as once a week experience an accelerated decline in lung function. Once-weekly use of cleaning products for 20 years may be equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 10 to 20 years.
Data from over 6,000 participants, whose average age was 34 when they enrolled in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey, were analyzed. Using 20 years of data, researchers found women who used commercial cleaning solutions experienced a reduction in lung function, as measured by forced expiratory volume and forced vital capacity, much faster than those who used them more seldom or not at all.
Cleaning Products Take Heavy Toll on Lung Function
Initially, the authors were surprised by the results. Senior author Cecilie Svanes, Ph.D., professor at the University of Bergen Center for International Health said:9
“However, when you think of inhaling small particles from cleaning agents that are meant for cleaning the floor and not your lungs, maybe it is not so surprising after all. While the short-term effects of cleaning chemicals on asthma are becoming increasingly well documented, we lack knowledge of the long-term impact.
We feared that such chemicals, by steadily causing a little damage to the airways day after day, year after year, might accelerate the rate of lung function decline that occurs with age. The take-home message of this study is that in the long run cleaning chemicals very likely cause rather substantial damage to your lungs. These chemicals are usually unnecessary; microfiber cloths and water are more than enough for most purposes.”
The authors postulate the decline in lung function could be attributed to the irritation most chemicals cause on the mucous membranes lining your lungs. Over time, this can result in persistent changes and airway remodeling. The data was adjusted for variables known to potentially bias the results, including body mass index, education and smoking history. The researchers acknowledged the study included very few people who did not clean, but they believe the results of the data analysis is strong.
What Are VOCs?
VOCs are a class of chemicals common to most cleaning products. These chemicals evaporate into the air as they’re used. In fact, in some instances they may even evaporate during storage. The scents you smell as you walk down the cleaning aisle at your local grocery store are the VOCs evaporating from tightly closed bottles. Examples of these are benzene, formaldehyde and acetone.
VOCs are also present in home improvement products such as paints and paint strippers, pesticides, varnishes and glues. Formaldehyde, a VOC found in composite wood products, building materials and household products, is a colorless gas at room temperature and has a strong odor. While it is a known carcinogen, banned in Japan and Sweden and limited in Europe, there is no restriction on its use in the U.S.
Formaldehyde, or formaldehyde-releasing products, can be found under a number of different names on product labels. Unfortunately, many other products may also contain formaldehyde, including lotions, shampoos, cosmetics and even toothpaste. Product labels will rarely if ever contain the word formaldehyde, but rather a synonym for a formaldehyde-releasing chemical. Some of these names include formalin, Methanal, Quaternium-15, methylene oxide and formic aldehyde.
Over time, exposure to VOCs in common household products have been linked to an increased risk of cancer in animals, and have been identified as a significant portion of indoor air pollution. In the short term, VOCs are associated with eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as shortness of breath, headaches and fatigue. Higher concentrations may also irritate your lungs and cause damage to your liver, kidney or central nervous system.
Health effects related to VOCs are dependent upon the concentration of the chemicals in the air and the length of your exposure. So, it’s not so surprising that studies analyzing these effects over 20 years are finding damage to lung tissue and reduced lung function by those exposed to cleaning chemicals week after week.
Personal Products Release as Much Air Pollution as Cars but Remain Unregulated
In another recent study, researchers looked at consumer products containing compounds refined from petroleum. Interestingly, despite the knowledge that many of these are carcinogenic, consumer products are actually designed to release VOCs into the air as they evaporate. Once these chemicals migrate outside your home they react with nitrogen oxides and heat, transforming into ozone, and when exposed to sunlight, the VOCs transform into fine particulate matter.
In a recent air quality evaluation in the Los Angeles area, researchers found the amount of VOCs released by consumer and industrial products are actually two to three times higher than previously estimated. The team also found levels of ethanol and acetone were higher than expected, two chemicals found in personal care products and not car emissions.
While the list of VOCs is exceedingly long, study team member Jessica Gilman, a research chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), notes that the easiest way to identify VOC-containing products is to look for the word “fragrances” on the label, as up to 2,000 different VOCs can be listed simply as “fragrance.” Two popular ones are limonene and beta-Pinene, frequently used in cleaning products and air fresheners as they smell like lemon and pine trees.
The study was inspired by earlier measurements in Los Angeles demonstrating concentrations of VOCs were higher than could be predicted by burning fossil fuels alone. Previous estimates by the EPA found 75 percent of VOC emissions were from vehicles, but the new study places the split closer to 50 percent. These findings indicate new air quality models may have to be adopted in order to reduce the increasing pattern of emission from consumer products.
Effective Nontoxic Cleaning Solutions Likely Already in Your Home
One of the primary reasons for cleaning your home regularly is to clear out many of the toxic chemicals accumulating in your dust. A clean and decluttered home is a sanctuary from the outside world, but if you use rubber gloves and spray harsh chemicals to get the job done, you’re doing damage to your health and to the health of the ones you love.
The good news is you really don’t need chemical cleansers to keep your home spick-and-span. Natural products you can use to clean your home from top to bottom include baking soda, white vinegar, lemons, Castile soap and coconut oil. The addition of essential oils will help boost cleaning power and provide a fresh scent as well, without risking your health. Discover some of my favorite homemade cleaning solutions in my previous article, “Keep a Clean House With Nontoxic Cleaners.”