Q: My asthmatic husband constantly complains about the “poisonous” sprays and cleaning products I use to clean our home. Do they really pose a danger?
A: This question is especially pertinent now, when a bottle of bleach becomes our constant companion as we get down and dirty in the cabinets in the name of Pesach cleaning. One might think that because cleaning products are sold over-the-counter, they must be safe and nontoxic. But is that really the case?
Your husband is probably complaining because, as someone with asthma, he is more sensitive to chemicals. These types of reactions are real and well documented. Most cleaning agents contain ingredients that will irritate the mucous membranes (the linings in your nose, mouth, eyes and ears) and, in some cases, trigger allergies. In fact, while evidence shows that cleaning products can impact the respiratory system, cleaning agents can also cause other health problems including disrupting the hormone system as well as increasing the risk of developing cancer.
Dirty Secrets about Cleaning Agents
Disinfectants (includes bleach): Considered the most dangerous type of cleaning agents, they kill bacteria and other microorganisms. Disinfectants can also be corrosive and cause allergic dermatitis (skin reactions) or other negative health effects.
Detergents: They lower the surface tension of water so it binds to the dirt you want removed instead of sticking to other water molecules. Detergents are getting better at doing their job, which means they may also be tougher on your skin and mucous membranes.
Alkaline agents (includes caustic acid—found in oven cleaners—and ammonia): may irritate eyes, skin and mucous membranes.
Acids (includes hydrochloric acid): may irritate mucous membranes.
Perfumes and scents: may cause allergic reactions and irritation.
Much of the data comes from studies of professionals who work with toxic cleaning chemicals on a daily basis. According to the European Community Respiratory Health Survey II (ECRHSII), custodians and nurses who use bleach, ammonia or spray cleaning products on a regular basis are the professional groups with the highest risk of developing asthma. But if you clean your home with over-the-counter products, surely you’re at very low risk, right? Not necessarily. A study of 3,500 ECRHSII participants who used cleaning products at least once a week to clean their homes found that they were more likely to report symptoms of asthma and wheezing. And if they cleaned four times or more per week using spray agents, they were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with asthma. (Note: spray-cleaning products were more likely than creams or powders to trigger asthmatic symptoms.)
How you use your cleaning products can also determine how they affect you. A 2008 study published in Occupational Medicine attributes higher rates of chemical exposure and more adverse symptoms in “domestic cleaners” compared to industrial cleaners to the limited training of the former. While industrial cleaners undergo extensive training, you most likely use a cleaning method that works for you. Unlike an industrial cleaner, you probably rarely wear protective clothing of any sort (including a mask or gloves) when cleaning your home and hardly ever choose products based on safety ratings.
Educate yourself about household cleaners by looking up their respective Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). These forms provide critical information about use, possible negative effects, hazardous chemicals and what to do in case of emergency exposure.
Be aware of the products used in your home, even if you’re not the one doing the cleaning. Exposure to cleaning products even after the fact can cause adverse effects. In one case, a pharmacist exhibited severe symptoms of asthma while at work in reaction to the cleaning products used by the night-cleaning crew. His symptoms improved when the crew switched to a cleaner without the offending ingredient.
You might think you can avoid all this simply by selecting “green” cleaning products. Instead of bleach or detergents, they use other ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, citric acid and alkyl polyglucoside. However, these cleaning products are not necessarily safe or healthy to use either. Firstly, they are not required to list all of the ingredients they contain, so you can’t be sure that harmful ingredients haven’t been left off the list. Secondly, there’s no government regulation of “organic” or “green” products to ensure they really are as natural and green as they claim. Green cleaning products may include petroleum distillates, specifically benzene, which has been linked to cancer. Additionally, fragrances from natural products like pine oil and limonene can cause skin reactions.
Be aware of the products used in your home, even if you’re not the one doing the cleaning. Exposure to cleaning products even after the fact can cause adverse effects.
The good news is that many green cleaning product manufacturers submit to voluntary certification by standardizing agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endorses cleaning products with the Design for the Environment (DfE) logo; all of the chemicals they contain have been researched by scientists to be the safest possible. A list of all DfE products is available at http://www.epa.gov/dfe.
So cleaning products can be harmful to your health, but you still need to get rid of that grime. How can you minimize risk while you clean for Peasch?
You may not think too much about the safety of your laundry detergent. While the enzymes that help detergent clean your clothing are generally thought to be safe, be wary of laundry detergent pods around children. Their colorful, candy-like shape led almost 500 children to ingest laundry detergent pods in just one month (May-June 2012), according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Store them far out of reach of children.
• Try simple homemade cleaners known to be safe like water, vinegar, club soda or baking soda with a little elbow grease.
• Use regular soap over antibacterial soap.
• Use liquids or powders over sprays.
• Wear a protective mask and gloves while cleaning.
• Keep the room you are cleaning well-ventilated.
• Take breaks to reduce exposure.
• Only disinfect surfaces people are likely to touch (e.g., doorknobs). You do not typically need to use a disinfectant on floors or walls.
Does Pesach Cleaning Take a Toll on our Mental Health?
The thought of making Pesach causes some people to break out in a sweat even before Chanukah rolls around. Does our community’s obsession with Pesach cleaning take a toll on our mental health?
It depends on the extent of that obsession, says Dvora Entin, LCSW, program coordinator of Aleinu—Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Phoenix, Arizona. According to Entin, it’s normal for everyone to experience anxiety to some degree, especially around Pesach when there really is a lot to get done in a short period of time. However, when the frequency, intensity and duration of the worry are disproportionate to the actual source of worry, or when anxiety interferes with daily functioning, then it becomes a problem. She suggests looking out for the following symptoms:
• Experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety such as restlessness, irritability, racing pulse, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating or constant worry
• Feeling stressed to the point where you cannot focus on anything else
• Cleaning areas you have already cleaned out of fear that “you didn’t get it right”
• Dreading the impending holiday
“Cleaning for Pesach is not going to cause obsessive compulsive disorder in a healthy individual,” assures Entin. “However, if someone already has OCD or OCD-like tendencies, this type of environment where everyone becomes obsessive about cleaning can heighten those symptoms.”
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to a rabbi or mental health professional about appropriate ways to manage anxiety when it comes to Pesach cleaning.
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer with a private nutrition practice in Nashville, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.