British Columbia

Babies frequently exposed to cleaning products at higher risk of asthma: study

New research suggests frequent exposure to common household cleaning products can increase a child's risk of developing asthma.

Air fresheners, deodorizers, dusting sprays, hand sanitizers, oven cleaners singled out by study's lead author

Laura Zucchelli, 9, has been part of the CHILD study all her life. Zucchelli was diagnosed with asthma as a toddler. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

New research suggests frequent exposure to common household cleaning products can increase a child's risk of developing asthma.

The cohort study found young infants living in homes where cleaning products were used frequently were more likely to develop childhood wheeze and asthma by age three.

Lead author Jaclyn Parks, a health sciences graduate student at Simon Fraser University in B.C., said the first few months of life are critical to the development of a baby's immune and respiratory systems.

"The risks of recurrent wheeze and asthma were notably higher in homes with frequent use of certain products, such as liquid or solid air fresheners, plug-in deodorizers, dusting sprays, antimicrobial hand sanitizers and oven cleaners," Parks said in a release.

"It may be important for people to consider removing scented spray cleaning products from their cleaning routine. We believe that the smell of a healthy home is no smell at all."

Laura Zucchelli, 9, has had asthma since she was a toddler. Michael Zucchelli, Laura's father, says he wishes he had known the risks of cleaning products when his daughter was a baby. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

The study was published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The study used data from 2,022 children enrolled in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development cohort study and examined their daily, weekly and monthly exposure to 26 types of household cleaners, including dishwashing and laundry detergents, cleaners, disinfectants, polishes and air fresheners.

The study examined children's daily, weekly and monthly exposure to 26 types of household cleaners, including dishwashing and laundry detergents, cleaners, disinfectants, polishes and air fresheners. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

By the age of three, 7.9 per cent of those living in homes where cleaning products were used frequently had asthma.

That's compared to nearly five per cent diagnosed from homes that used low amounts of products.

Data was collected between 2008 and 2015. Researchers also found the relationship between product exposure and respiratory problems was much stronger in girls than boys.

Laura Zucchelli, 9, has been part of the study for her whole life. She was diagnosed with asthma as a toddler and has to come in for tests every three to four years.

"Sometimes when I'm running, it gets hard to breathe so I have to stop and take a break and most of the time I can't participate in sports I would like to," the elementary school student says.

Her father, Michael, said if he had known this information when Laura was a baby, he would have changed his routine.

"You think you're keeping a clean environment [but] you're not doing yourself any favours, are you?" he said. 

Manufacturers not required to list all ingredients

Lead researcher Tim Takaro of SFU noted infants typically spend most of their time indoors and come in regular contact with household surfaces, making them especially vulnerable to chemical exposure.

The findings suggest that small, preventive changes could help families with children at risk of asthma.

That could include choosing cleaning products that are not sprayed or contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are gases emitted from solids or liquids that can be found in aerosol sprays, paints, glue, cleansers and disinfectants.

Health Canada recommends reducing VOC exposure, noting health effects may include breathing problems, irritation of eyes, nose and throat, and headaches.

But manufacturers in Canada and the United States are not required to list all ingredients in cleaning products. Some "green" products may also contain harmful substances, said the study.

Seek alternatives: environmental journalist

The findings were not surprising to Toronto environmental journalist Candice Batista, whose website The Eco Hub promotes environmentally conscious Canadian brands and companies.

"There's been tonnes and tonnes of studies that show that indoor air pollution can be five to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution. And that's thanks mostly in part to the products and the cleaning items that we have in the home,'' said Batista.

While it can be confusing for consumers to know what ingredients could add to indoor pollution, Batista suggested eco-conscious shoppers look for ingredients that use common terms and are easy to read, and avoid those that contain ammonia, coal tar dyes and fragrance or parfum.

Batista suggested eco-conscious shoppers look for ingredients that use common terms and are easy to read, and avoid those that contain ammonia, coal tar dyes and fragrance or parfum. (Shutterstock/Yeti studio)

"If a label has the word 'fragrance' or 'perfume' on it, avoid it. Don't buy it," she said, noting the term generally involves undisclosed chemicals.

"Companies, through loopholes in Health Canada's legislation, are allowed to use those terms to protect their proprietary concoction.''

Those looking to freshen their home can consider a scented candle or diffuser instead, she said, while recipes abound for alternative homemade cleaners. Common do-it-yourself cleaners use hydrogen peroxide or vodka to disinfect, and vinegar and baking soda as a soap substitute, she said.

The research team included experts at Simon Fraser University; the University of British Columbia; McMaster University; the University of Alberta; the University of Manitoba; the University of Toronto and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Funding came from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Allergy, Genes and Environment Network of Centres of Excellence.

With files from Karen Pauls

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.