Cleaning contributes to increased declines in lung function in women, but not in men

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published February 16, 2018

Key Takeaways

Over time, women who clean for a living or regularly use cleaning sprays and other cleaning products in the home may have greater declines in lung function compared with women who do not clean, according to study results published online in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

This effect, however, was not seen in men.

“While the short-term effects of cleaning chemicals on asthma are becoming increasingly well documented, we lack knowledge of the long-term impact,” said senior study author Cecile Svanes, MD, PhD, professor, University of Bergen’s Centre for International Health, Norway. “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.”

For this analysis, Dr. Svanes and fellow researchers included 6,235 participants (average age at enrollment: 34 years) from the European Community Respiratory Health Survey.

They found that women working as cleaners demonstrated an accelerated lung function decline that compared to the effects of smoking somewhat less than 20 pack-years. In women who worked as cleaners, forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) declined by 3.9 ml/year faster, and in those who cleaned at home, 3.6 ml/year faster. Forced vital capacity (FVC) also declined 7.1 and 4.3 ml/year faster compared with women who did not clean, respectively. The FEV1/FVC ratio did not decline more rapidly, however, in women who cleaned compared with those who did not.

Additionally, the incidence of asthma was higher in women who cleaned at work (13.7%) or at home (12.3%) compared with those who did not clean (9.6%).

Dr. Svanes and colleagues did not find, however, declines in FEV1 or DVC in men who cleaned compared to with men who did not.

Limitations of the study included only a small number of women who did not clean at work or at home, as well as the small number of men who worked as occupational cleaners.

Although researchers were at first surprised at the levels of lung impairment they found in women who cleaned, said lead author Øistein Svanes, doctoral student, Department for Clinical Science, University of Bergen’s Centre for International Health, “…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,” he added.

The authors speculated that the decline in lung function is attributable to the irritation that most cleaning chemicals cause on the mucous membranes lining the airways, which over time results in persistent changes in the airways and airway remodeling

 Dr. Øistein Svanes added that their results highlight the need for strict regulation of cleaning products by public health officials, as well as the need to encourage manufacturers to develop cleaning agents that cannot be inhaled.

“The take home message of this study is that in the long run cleaning chemicals very likely cause rather substantial damage to your lungs,” he concluded. “These chemicals are usually unnecessary; microfiber cloths and water are more than enough for most purposes.”

This study was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.

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