Women Who Clean More Likely to Develop Asthma, Lung Function Decline

A 20-year study of over 6000 European participants found reason to be concerned over the harm of cleaning chemicals.

A clean home is not always a safe home.

A 20-year study of 6235 participants in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey found that women who work as cleaners or frequently use cleaning sprays and products at home have a greater lung function decline over time than women who do not clean.

Participants’ mean age was 34 when the 20-year trial began, and over time a disparity grew between women who frequently clean and women who did not, as measured in forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) and forced vital capacity (FVC).

Women who cleaned at home reported a mean FEV1 annual decline of 3.6ml faster than control, and women who work as cleaners reported a 3.9ml faster decline annually.

In FVC, women who clean at home reported a mean annual decline 4.3ml faster than women who don’t clean. Women who work as cleaners were significantly worse — their annual FVC decline was 7.1ml faster than women who don’t clean.

Researchers equated the accelerated lung function decline in women working as cleaners as comparable to smoking “somewhat less than 20 pack-years.”

The study’s results answered a long-held question as to the long-term impact of cleaning chemicals on asthma, senior author Cecile Svanes, MD, PhD, a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway’s Center for International Health, said.

“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,” Svanes said in a statement.

Researchers summarily found that asthma was prevalent in 13.7% of women who clean for work, and in 12.3% of women who clean at home. Just 9.6% of women who do not clean were diagnosed with asthma.

Lung function decline in women who clean may be due to irritation in the mucus membranes lining lung airways, which are heavily affected by the cleaning chemicals, researchers noted. They added that the ratio of FEV1 to FVC did not decline more rapidly in women who clean versus those who did not, however.

The varied populations of men who either clean or do not clean their home or at work did not report statistically significant differences in FEV1 or FVC decline, or asthma prevalence rates. However, the population of men who worked as occupational cleaners was small, researchers noted, and their exposure to cleaning agents was likely different than that of their women counterparts.

Lead study author Øistein Svanes, a doctoral student also at the university’s Department for Clinical Science, said that public health officials should consider regulating cleaning products while encouraging producers to develop cleaning agent which cannot be inhaled.

“These chemicals are usually unnecessary; microfiber cloths and water are more than enough for most purposes,” Svanes said.

The European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program funded this study.

The study, "Cleaning at home and at work in relation to lung function decline and airway obstruction," was published online in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine last week.

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