Health Hazards When Using Disinfectants, Sanitizers, and General Cleaning Products


Are there any health hazards we should be aware of when using disinfectants, sanitizers, or general cleaning products?

It is important to keep in mind that disinfectants, sanitizers, and other general cleaning products do play a significant role in keeping our living and working spaces safe and healthy. At home, they help:

  • contain and mitigate the spread of viral infections that constantly surround us.
  • prevent the proliferation of bacteria we may have inadvertently carried with us from the outside
  • stop the spread of dirt that our pets may have brought in from their daily walk.
  • cease insects, flies, and bugs from being attracted to our waste bins.
  • restrict mold growth in our sinks, our bathrooms and our kitchen area, preventing these from getting into our food, and subsequently making their way into our bodies.

At work, they staunch the proliferation of viruses our coworkers may have carried with them from their own unique environments. They help our general surroundings stay neat, clean, healthy, and mitigate our toxic overload from these external influences. On a macro level, they have very likely been a key component in preventing the spread of disease of plague-like proportions in our cities.

That being said, it is equally important to be aware of the health risks that come with the use of these products. Some may contain ingredients that could potentially cause health problems in the very people that they've been designed to protect, namely the members of our living and working spaces. Further, their leak may also be threat to our waterways and natural wildlife. Once we are fully aware of the risks involved in the use of these products, we can be more conscious consumers. We can also be more mindful of the products that we choose, and at the same time be more knowledgeable about using them in moderation, in that we use them only when they are needed.

Little is known about the long term effects from exposure to the ingredients in many of these household products, something that should be of concern when it comes to the subject of exposure to children, since they are most vulnerable, and have a greater number of years over which to develop adverse health responses from early exposure to these chemicals. Thus, it would be wise to exercise care in using these products when within close proximity to children, as inadvertent exposure, through inhalation or ingestion, could have deleterious effects in the future.

Use of commercial cleaning products may involve accidental inhalation, as well as unintended absorption through our skin. Immediate effects from this exposure may involve an asthma attack, and can be witnessed straight away. However, there are some forms of these chemicals that when they come into contact with our skin, stay stored in our body, and accumulate over time. With repeated exposure, this could lead to asthma, or cancer, after several years. Chemical cleaning products that are dispensed via aerosol are released via minute particles that not just attack bacteria on the floor, table, or desk, but also infiltrate the air, bind to dust that we eventually inhale, or stay floating around, resulting in continuous exposure long after the trigger has been pulled. These particles may make their way onto children’s hands, utensils that have been left in the open air, or plates that are drying on a rack, and eventually are ingested by our bodies. 

What we should consider in gauging the potential harmful effects from exposure to cleaning and disinfecting products would include: 

  • The way in which the product is dispensed
    1. aerosol form, which is a fine spray that could possibly be inhaled?
    2. Is it highly volatile, or evaporates easily once dispensed, like alcohol?
  • The environment where the product is used
    1. are there windows that open to the outside, or allow for proper ventilation, thus lowering the concentration of the dispensed chemical in your immediate environment?
    2. is the space big enough to allow safe and responsible distribution of the volatile compounds present in the product such that the likelihood of accidental inhalation is lowered?
    3. As an alternative to windows, is there properly working ventilation in the space?

How does one get asthma?

Incidents of asthma are higher than ever before, taking into consideration however, the improved testing capabilities and facilities that we have at our disposal, contributing to the recording of increased cases. That being said, close to 20 million people in the United States alone, including almost 10 million children, have asthma. That’s a whopping 10% of their child population suffering from chronic asthma.

Symptoms of asthma include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness of the chest

These symptoms can often be exhibited even after just one exposure to a single chemical irritant. This is type of reaction is referred to as Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome or RADS. Other asthma triggers include cigarette smoke, sudden exposure to cold air, animal fur or dander, plus  350 other substances that have been known to trigger an asthma attack, even in people who have never suffered it before. This sudden adverse reaction is often developed over time, after relatively small exposures, and undergoes a process referred to as sensitization.

While asthma may be managed with pharmacological help, there is as of yet, no cure for it; and little publicity is afforded to the fact that many products designed to disinfect, clean, and sanitize our homes, are known to contain ingredients that may trigger, or even cause, asthma. 

Possible Asthma Triggers In Commercial Cleaners

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds, the category that Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC), falls under, is a known throat and nose irritant. BAC causes severe eye irritation and triggers asthma, especially when used in sprays. Over the past several years, an observed downside to using Quats is the growth of bacteria strains showing resistance to disinfection. Some laboratory studies also found that QUATS damaged genetic material, apart from causing allergic reactions.

Ammonia and bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is an asthma trigger in children, and can aggravate symptoms in persons already suffering from pre-existing asthma.

Phthalates are compounds present in fragrances, a common ingredient in many consumer products we use, including cleaners. There have been studies that have shown that inhalation of phthalate-containing products increases the risk of allergies in children, as well as disrupt their thyroid function and stunt their neural development.

Triclosan is a banned preservative and endocrine disruptor.

 Authors Recommendation

The value cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants provide us cannot be discounted. They’ve kept multiple pathogens at bay, and preserved and maintained the health of our loved ones in our living spaces. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that their mechanism of action, as well as how they perform as a finished product, carries some risks along with it. Thus, using them should be practiced with the utmost care, and only when necessary.

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