Cleaning Supplies May Harm Health

Chemical agents found in many institutional cleaning supplies may pose a health risk to hospital workers, according to a pilot study done by researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Harvard’s School of Public Health.

The study, published in last month’s issue of Environmental Health, was carried out at six eastern Massachusetts hospitals.

“The reason we started this study was that we received concerns from clinicians, housekeeping staff, and nurses about various cleaning agents,” said lead researcher Anila Bello, a research fellow in exposure and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Some hospital workers had said that they had experienced exacerbated asthma symptoms, while others complained of skin irritation.

Researchers sought to identify ingredients in glass, bathroom, and general-purpose cleaners that may cause respiratory distress and skin irritation and then gauge the potential for exposure to these ingredients during common cleaning tasks.

Examples of these problem ingredients include quaternary ammonium compounds, 2-butoxyethanol, and ethanolamines, said Bello.

In addition to the specific chemical ingredients, cleaning techniques also affected the severity of the reactions.

Bello and her team looked at the relative exposure to chemicals during a variety of cleaning tasks. The study concluded that “high exposure” jobs include tasks that require a variety of products used in succession, such as cleaning bathrooms.

“Aerosol cleaners and cleaning tasks that involve application over large surface area are some of the most hazardous in terms of the highest exposure,” said Margaret M. Quinn, a member of the research team who is a professor at the UMass Lowell.

Though this study made no conclusions pertaining to patient health risk, the researchers have also carried out a study that shows that the organic vapors from cleaning products do hang in the air for sometimes 20 minutes or more, which create a poor indoor environment, Quinn said.

While more research is needed, there are steps that hospitals and other institutions can take to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.

“Things that could be done are to avoid spraying when possible,” Quinn said. “Wiping is better than spraying, any thing that aerosols should be avoided. Also, have ventilation is important.”

Hospitals can also switch to more environmentally friendly, “green” cleaning products, which are safer and have fewer hazardous ingredients, said Bello.