While most people know that smoking, a family history of lung problems or exposure to dust, gas and chemicals can increase the risk of lung disease, there’s growing evidence that many of the cleaning products we use on a daily basis may also be impacting our lung function. These products may keep our houses looking spick and span, but they could actually trigger an array of lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary arterial hypertension.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that some cleaning products such as sprays may be as bad for lung health as smoking and those who use cleaning products on a regular basis are more at risk of long-term issues. While other studies show chemical compounds found in some air fresheners, toilet bowel cleaners, mothballs and deodorising products may also result in reduced lung function.
“Cleaning products and particularly the chemical ingredients and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in them are known triggers for people with lung conditions such as asthma and allergies,” Adele Taylor, National Asthma Council’s Sensitive Choice program manager, tells Starts at 60.
VOCs are carbon-based organic compounds that evaporate at room temperature and are found in an array of cleaning products. Those with respiratory issues, asthma or with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to irritation and symptoms when they’re exposed to them. Products containing fragrances may also have a similar effect but, because triggers vary from person to person, there’s no universal guidelines on what will or won’t cause lung problems.
“Look for household cleaning products with fewer harsh chemicals and no fragrances and if you are very sensitive to chemicals, try and get someone else to do the cleaning where possible,” Taylor says. “While a clean, hygienic environment is important for good health, it’s also important to try not to over-sanitise the home with cleaning products.”
Taylor suggests switching to healthier cleaning alternatives such as white vinegar water combinations, while other experts say cleaning with water and a microfibre cloth is better for lung health and has similar cleaning results. It’s also important to know that any activity completed in the home has the potential to stir up dust and other airborne particles that can irritate the airways.
“Using an air purifier or air steriliser in your home can help clean the air of these particles, allowing from more comfortable breathing and less irritation,” Taylor says. “They can be effective in removing allergens and irritants from the air including pollen, pet dander, mould spores, smoke, gasses and VOCs as well as dust mite allergens. You should also make sure your home is well-ventilated where possible.”
Ventilation will reduce the likelihood of mould and dampness, which can also trigger asthma symptoms. Experts may be required to remove mould in extreme cases but other measures that may reduce mould exposure including cleaning visible mould with white vinegar solution, using high-efficiency air filters, removing indoor plants from the home and drying or removing any wet carpet.
Wood fires, gas heaters and pet hair and dander are other known triggers and if using a vacuum to clean, Taylor recommends cleaners that include High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to prevent airborne particles escaping and triggering asthma, allergies or other lung issues. Wiping surfaces with a damp cloth will capture any dust and prevent it from spreading throughout the air, while anyone sensitive to dust should stay out of rooms that have been cleaned for at least 20 minutes to allow any triggering particles to settle.
While avoiding harsh chemicals can do wonders for lung health, it’s important to know that it’s not likely going to cure a lung condition or disease completely, with Taylor explaining: “Managing conditions with the help of your doctor and taking prescribed medications as directed is the most important step you can take to manage asthma and allergies.
“Understanding what your specific triggers and irritants are is important to help remove those triggers from your home.”
Always talk with your GP about your lung health and what your specific triggers are so they can recommend suggestions for your individual circumstances.