Exposure to cleaning products linked to asthma and wheezing in children

Simple chores can help them learn responsibility from an early age

New research suggests that early exposure to household cleaning products is associated with the development of asthma and wheezing in children

Professor Tim Takaro, the study’s lead researcher and a clinician-scientist in Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences (SFU) says: “Most of the evidence linking asthma to the use of cleaning products comes from adults,

“Our study looked at infants, who typically spend 80%-90% of their time indoors and are especially vulnerable to chemical exposures through the lungs and skin due to their higher respiration rates and regular contact with household surfaces.”

Measuring exposure to cleaning products

The research published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal), looked at data from questionnaires collected between 2008 and 2015 and completed by parents of 2022 children in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Cohort Study who were exposed to cleaning products from birth to age 3-4 months.

Participants in the CHILD Cohort Study were recruited from mostly urban centres across four provinces: Vancouver, BC; Edmonton, Alberta; Winnipeg, Morden and Winkler, Manitoba; and Toronto, Ontario. The children were then assessed at age 3 years to determine whether they had asthma, recurrent wheeze or atopy (allergic sensitization).

Highlights from the study

  • Although there is an association between early exposure to cleaning products and the risk of asthma and wheeze, there appears to be no association with atopy (food or air born allergens).
  • Hand dishwashing soap, dishwasher detergent, multi-surface cleaners, glass cleaners and laundry soap are the most common cleaning products that were used.
  • Scented and sprayed cleaning products were associated with the highest risk of respiratory issues.
  • Most children were white (65%), had not been exposed to tobacco smoke up to age 3-4 months (76%) and did not have a parental history of asthma (65%).

Damage to the respiratory lining

The researchers hypothesise that chemicals in cleaning products may damage the respiratory lining by triggering inflammatory pathways of the immune system, leading to asthma and wheeze. The modulation of the infant’s microbiome may also play a role.

Jaclyn Parks, lead author and a graduate student in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences said: “These findings add to our understanding of how early life exposures are associated with the development of allergic airway disease, and identify household cleaning behaviours as a potential area for intervention,”

Reading labels on cleaning products and choosing those that are not sprayed or contain volatile organic compounds will help minimize a child’s exposure and balance the risk associated with using cleaning products in an effort to achieve a mould-free, low-allergen home.

Dr. Elissa Abrams, Department of Pediatrics, Section of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, writes: “Studies that identify avoidable factors to inform asthma prevention efforts are of paramount importance, the linked study points to small preventive changes that could be considered, especially among families of children at risk of asthma.”

Lack of regulation

Although the American Lung Association recommends against using cleaning products that contain volatile organic compounds, fragrance and other irritants, manufacturers in Canada and the United States are not required to list all ingredients in cleaning products. Some “green” products may contain harmful substances, as these products are not regulated.

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