How everyday household items can cause major health damage

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published May 26, 2020

Key Takeaways

The novel coronavirus has been a financial disaster for many businesses—but not for Clorox. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company recently saw demand for some of its cleaning products skyrocket by more than 500%, leading to a 40% ramp-up in production. But while there’s evidence that the virus can persist on surfaces from hours to days, there hasn’t been any documentation of human transmission via contaminated surfaces. Still, the CDC recommends the “[c]leaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection [as] a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.” It’s important to note, however, that fervid attempts to clean and disinfect surfaces to limit the spread of COVID-19 may come with their own health risks. Caution should, therefore, be taken when using household cleaners and disinfectants, as they may be dangerous to personal health, including the development of severe respiratory problems, cancer, and even death.

Cleaning vs disinfecting

First off, cleaning and disinfecting are two different things. Cleaning refers to the physical removal of dirt, germs, and impurities from surfaces to limit the spread of infection. On the other hand, disinfecting refers to the killing of germs on surfaces via chemicals, such as disinfectants registered by the EPA. Disinfection is performed after cleaning to further decrease pathogen count.

Of note, the EPA has published a searchable database of cleaners and disinfectants that can be used against COVID-19. Because samples of COVID-19 are not yet widely available for lab testing, List N details products that, when applied to surfaces such as counters or doorknobs, have been proven to kill viruses that are either harder to eradicate than the novel coronavirus or have killed other types of coronavirus similar to it.

Health hazard

Various cleaning and disinfectant products contain harmful chemicals that can irritate the throat or eyes and lead to headaches as well as allergy. These chemicals can also be carcinogenic and may result in respiratory problems. Harmful components include ammonia, bleach, natural fragrances like citrus, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

VOCs include benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene. These gases are released into the air from products or chemical reactions. They can be harmful on their own or after reacting with other gases. Examples of products containing VOCs with toxic ingredients include aerosol sprays, chlorine bleach, air fresheners, detergents, and dishwashing liquids. Specifically, VOCs can lead to irritation of the nasopharynx, difficulty breathing, nausea, and damage to the CNS and other organ systems.

Products containing bleach and ammonia should never be mixed. When mixed and inhaled, the fumes from these products can cause severe, chronic breathing problems and even death. Furthermore, natural fragrances found in air fresheners can react with high levels of ozone from either indoor sources, such as air purification devices, or outdoor air to form formaldehyde—which is a carcinogen. Of note, ozone is an invisible gas that exacerbates asthma and other types of lung disease. 

In one study of the association of household cleaning products and asthma in young adults entering the workforce, researchers found that high use of disinfectants was tied to a greater than two-fold increase in asthma risk. And even low or medium use was linked to remittent asthma.

Protection from risk

When using cleaning supplies, disinfectants, and other household products, it’s important to read the labels and look for products with few or no VOCs, fragrances, flammable compounds, and irritants. It may be beneficial to avoid air fresheners altogether. Keep in mind that even products marketed as “green” or “natural” can still contain harmful ingredients. The EPA offers a list of cleaners and disinfectants that meet Safer Choice requirements. And, if you’re in a DIY state of mind, instead of using commercial cleaning products, try safer alternatives like soap and water or baking soda, which is good for scrubbing. Vinegar and water can also be used to clean glass.

Household cleaning products should never be used in enclosed, unventilated spaces. Instead, they should be used in ventilated spaces where the windows or doors are open. When using household products that contain VOCs, use an indoor fan to pull the air out of an open window. And only use as much household cleaner as needed, safely disposing of any excess. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding use.

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