Everybody does it. Or should. On a regular basis. But what’s the best and healthiest way to clean? This episode features audio from Do Natural & DIY Tea Tree Oil Cleaning Products Disinfect as Well as Bleach?, The Effects of Cleaning Products and Air Fresheners on Lung Function, and Throw Household Products off the Scent. Visit the video pages for all sources and doctor’s notes related to this podcast.
Have you ever wondered if there’s a natural way to lower your high blood pressure, guard against Alzheimer's, lose weight, and feel better? Well as it turns out there is. Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, founder of NutritionFacts.org, and author of the instant New York Times bestseller “How Not to Die” celebrates evidence-based nutrition to add years to our life and life to our years.
It’s crazy when you think about all of the different kinds of food we eat. We just swallow – and hope it all works out for the best. Well – as it turns out there are better ways to think about keeping our bodies humming healthfully along. Welcome to Nutrition Facts – I’m your host Dr. Michael Greger.
Today – we take our recently de-cluttered living spaces…A-HEM – and try to clean them, without passing out from the harsh chemicals. And yes – we’re talking about cleaning products.
So – what do we use? Here’s our first story.
Household cleaning products can be hazardous, landing hundreds of thousands of children in U.S. emergency rooms. And, “[t]he product most-commonly associated with injury [was] bleach,” which can be toxic even if used as directed.
We’ve known that those with asthma who work with cleaning products day in and day out can suffer adverse respiratory effects, a worsening of symptoms, “decline in…lung function,” inflamed airways. But, even cleaning workers without asthma can be affected. Even below so-called acceptable exposure levels, cleaners with or without reactive airways can suffer a substantial decrease in lung function.
Okay, but that’s people who clean for a living. “Although [we’ve known] that occupational use of bleach may have adverse respiratory health effects, it [was] unknown whether common domestic use of bleach” in the household may put lungs at risk—until now.
“Bleach use was significantly associated with [nearly five times the odds of] non-allergic adult-onset asthma,” as well as ongoing lower respiratory symptoms, such as chronic cough. The way bleach works is as such a strong pro-oxidant that – the thought is that it can lead to leaky lungs, and allow allergens to penetrate.
This phenomenon of cleaning product-induced asthma has been known for decades. More than three-quarters of the dozens of population studies looking into it have found “increased risk of asthma” or nasal inflammation. Ideally,…safer [cleaning products] should be available.” Unfortunately, this body of evidence has been largely ignored by the manufacturers and commercial cleaning companies. And, most of the workers put at risk are women. In fact, that may help explain some of the “gender differences in asthma.” “The relatively high frequency of bleach use for home-cleaning by women…around the world, together with the strong association between bleach use and non-allergic asthma…, emphasizes the need for (re)-considering the use of bleach for cleaning…”
There are natural, environmentally friendly cleaning products that may offer a safer alternative. Safer, perhaps, but are they as effective? We didn’t know—until now. “The effectiveness of three home products in cleaning and disinfection of Staphylococcus aureus [the bacteria that causes staph infections] and [E. coli ] on home environmental surfaces.” “The first report [ever] of [the] performance of purportedly safer alternatives.”
“In the home setting, some individuals will select conventional products, such as bleach, due to familiarity;” it’s a smell “some…associate with cleanliness.” “Others are seeking less hazardous and environmentally preferable…‘green,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘natural’” disinfectants, which you can buy or make yourself—so-called DIY (do-it-yourself) recipes, that typically involve ingredients like vinegar, club soda, and plant essential oils, such as tea tree oil, prized for its antimicrobial qualities.
So, researchers pitted head-to-head Clorox bleach versus a natural disinfectant based on thymol, which is from thyme essential oil, versus a DIY recipe of half club soda, half white vinegar, with a few drops of tea tree oil. You could probably buy the bleach for around $3, the natural stuff for more like $7, but the DIY mix for less than a dollar. Yeah, but does it work?
On the bottle, it says bleach can kill 99.9% of germs, which is the EPA standard for the disinfection of surfaces that don’t come into contact with food, like the bathroom sink or something. They claim 99.9% of germs, but when put to the test, the bleach actually killed 99.9999% of germs, completely wiping out the E. coli and staph germs, which even exceeds the EPA standard for food contact surfaces, like the kitchen counter. And, so did the expensive natural stuff—worked just as well as the bleach. But, the club soda/vinegar/tea tree oil concoction…flopped, allowing as many as a few percent of the staph bugs to thrive.
Now, maybe they didn’t use enough of the tea tree oil, only adding about a drop per cup. But, from a performance perspective, “the [environmentally preferable] product is an effective alternative to…conventional bleach”—and, I would say, even better, since bleach is “well known as a respiratory irritant.” And, it’s “corrosive” too, and may end up damaging surfaces. What I would find interesting is to test how effective a cheap DIY thyme-oil solution would be.
In our next story, we find the reasons the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prohibit not only smoking, but also scented or fragranced products in its buildings.
In a recent review of the “Damaging effects of household cleaning products on the lungs,” researchers noted that the “[a]dverse respiratory effects of cleaning products were first observed in populations experiencing high level[s] of exposure at the workplace, such as cleaners and health-care workers, with a primary focus on asthma.” But the occupational use of disinfectants has also been linked to a higher risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like emphysema.
And now we know it’s not just workplace exposures, but also “common household exposures” that are “risk factor[s] for respiratory disorders in childhood,” as well as potentially an important risk factor for adult asthma, with common household cleaning spray use accounting for as many as one in seven adult asthma cases. The thought is that the inhalation of chemical irritants may cause injury of the airways that leads to oxidative stress and inflammation. Okay, so what can we do about it?
Well, it may indeed be limited to sprays. Cleaning products not applied in spray form were not associated with asthma, and it’s possible that environmentally friendly cleaning products may represent a safer alternative, though they may still present some risk.
Ideally, safer cleaning products should be available. Unfortunately, the research suggesting harm “has seldom been heeded by manufacturers, vendors, and commercial cleaning companies.” I wonder how much of that is because “most of the workers exposed to cleaning products [both occupationally and presumably domestically] are women.
One of the problems may be the fragrance chemicals. One in three Americans surveyed “reported health problems such as migraine headaches and respiratory difficulties, when exposed to fragranced products.” And, in about half, it was so bad they actually lost work over it.
“Results from this study reveal that more than one third of Americans suffer adverse health effects, such as respiratory difficulties and migraine headaches, from exposure to fragranced products. Of [all] individuals, half reported that the effects can be disabling. Yet, [more than] 99 percent of Americans are exposed to fragranced products at least once a week…”
The effect on asthmatics may be even worse, affecting closer to two-thirds. One compound that may be of particular concern is called 1, 4-dichlorobenzene, also known as para-dichlorobenzene, which is found in many air fresheners, toilet bowl deodorants, and mothballs. It breaks down in the body into a compound called 2,5-dichlorophenol, which you pee out, giving researchers a reliable measure of your dichlorobenzene exposure. Not only may it make respiratory problems worse for those already suffering from compromised airways, but exposure to dichlorobenzene “at blood levels found in the general U.S. population, may result in reduced [lung] function” in people who start out with normal breathing. What’s worse, higher exposure was associated with greater prevalence of cardiovascular disease and cancer. That’s not good! So, better read the labels, right?
Surprisingly, there is “no law in the U.S. [that] requires the disclosure of all ingredients in fragranced consumer products.” In fact, for air fresheners, laundry supplies, and cleaning products, they don’t even need to say it has fragrance at all. You don’t know until you smell it. So, if you can’t tell which products have which chemicals, you can follow the lead of the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not only is cigarette smoking indoors prohibited at all times, “[s]cented or fragranced products are [also] prohibited at all times in all interior space owned, rented, or leased by CDC.”
I wish rideshare services like Uber and Lyft would have a similar policy, or at least a fragrance-free option. About one in five of more than a thousand Americans surveyed said they would turn right around and leave a business if they smelled air fresheners or some fragranced product; so, it’s in business’s best interest too, since “[more than] 50 percent of the population would prefer that workplaces, health care facilities, and [their health care] professionals, hotels, and airplanes were fragrance-free.”
Finally today, we learn how volatile chemicals in consumer products, such as air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets, may be hazardous.
In addition to meat, exposure to common household chemicals may exacerbate or induce allergies, asthma, and eczema. Researchers at Harvard and all around the world collected air samples from where children slept and demonstrated for the first time that the bedroom concentration of propylene glycol and glycol ethers was significantly associated with an elevated risk of multiple allergic symptoms, runny nose, and eczema. This class of chemical compounds is found in cleaning fluids, paint, pesticides, PVC pipes, and varnishes, and may be one of the reasons we’ve seen an increase in these kinds of diseases around the world over the last few decades.
Recently, researchers put a few consumer products to the test: air fresheners, a laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets—each with annual sales over $100 million. Six products, nearly a hundred volatile chemicals identified, though none were listed on the labels; it usually just says something like “fragrance.” And ten of the chemicals they found are regulated as toxic or hazardous—with three officially classified as hazardous air pollutants.
For example, the fabric softener they tested. On the label, it just says “biodegradable fabric softening agents.” And it even smells like mom, when she leans in for a good night kiss. But this is what they really found, including the carcinogenic hazardous air pollutant acetaldehyde.
What about if you just stick to the naturally scented products? Even products advertised as green, natural, organic emitted as many hazardous chemicals as standard ones. For example, a soap boasting pure essential oils and organic tea infusions also contained all of these.
Yeah, but what if you somehow know for certain it’s all just natural— like the limonene, right? That’s a real phytochemical found in real citrus. Until it photo-oxidizes with ozone in ambient air to form dangerous secondary pollutants, including formaldehyde.
When it comes to consumer products, the best smell is no smell.
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