Cleaner Isn’t Necessarily Better Around Young Infants

The overuse of cleaning products, particularly ones with strong fragrances, is being linked to a heightened asthma risk in young children.


Parents of young kids who diligently clean their homes may want to think twice about overdoing it. New research using data from the CHILD Cohort Study has found that regular exposure to household cleaning items may up the risk of developing asthma by 37% among other issues.

Kids under 4 months living in homes where several cleaning products are applied were found to be significantly more likely to develop respiratory issues by age 3, compared to kids whose parents or caregivers did not frequently apply cleaning products. Issues besides asthma included childhood wheeze and chronic allergies.

Children are more vulnerable than adults to the harms of chemicals because their immune systems are still in development. They also spend a lot more time indoors (approximately 80-90% of their time according to the authors) and closer to the ground where there is greater exposure to chemicals.

The chemicals in these products can lead to chronic inflammation — a precursor to asthma — or make symptoms more severe. Previous research has established a link in adolescent and adult populations.

Asthma is the most common chronic childhood health condition and is a leading cause of missed school days and hospitalization. Pediatric asthma rates in Canada are around 13%, and this figure has increased over time.

Lead author Tim Takaro of Simon Fraser University explained to the Vancouver Sun that “high use” can mean using just a few products frequently or many products infrequently.

The greatest risks were associated with spray products, oven cleaners, deodorizers, and worst of all, fragrant products. This includes those that market themselves as “natural” or “eco-friendly,” claims which are largely unregulated in Canada and the US.

“So if you use those on a weekly basis, you are probably getting into the high category,” he added.

Fragrant products can contain up to 4,000 ingredients, some of which have been linked to serious health concerns. These products may trigger asthma attacks and other types of respiratory difficulties.

Risk of multiple respiratory issues linked to product-heavy homes

Researchers reviewed how frequently 2,022 households used 26 common cleaning products in the first 4 months of an infant’s life and then compared against health outcomes around age 3. The most commonly used products included glass cleaners, polishes, disinfectants, air fresheners, and dish detergents.

Skin-based allergy tests and questionnaires asking parents about how often their child experiences key symptoms like wheezing were used in tandem with breathing tests.

To control for potentially confounding factors with the development of asthma, the team accounted for early exposure to cigarette smoke and family history of the disease. A limitation of the study was that most of the kids were white.

In their results, they found that kids in high-use households were 37% more likely to have asthma than those in low-use homes. They were also 35% likelier to experience chronic wheezing and 49% more likely to suffer from a recurrent wheeze with atopy, which is essentially a heightened immune response to allergens.

In the SFU press release, Takaro noted that they did not find an independent association between the use of cleaning products and an atopy risk.

“Therefore, a proposed mechanism underlying these findings is that chemicals in cleaning products damage the cells that line the respiratory tract through innate inflammatory pathways rather than acquired allergic pathways,” he said.

A topic for future research concerns the sex of the child, as the researchers found that the outcomes for girls at age 3 were worse.

The authors state that parents should take a precautionary approach to using cleaning products and engage in “targeted hygiene” by cleaning only the areas that need it around the house. Reading the label, avoiding cleaners with a strong fragrance or smell, and being informed about the risks associated with a given product are steps to ensure a clean and healthy home.

In an accompanying commentary, Elissa Abrams of the University of Manitoba wrote that “while much remains unknown, we think that these cleaning products (and the chemicals they contain) act as irritants to the airways of growing children.

“The take-home message is that parents should be careful which cleaning products they use in the home.”

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.