People who regularly use bleach when cleaning could be increasing their risk of developing a potentially fatal lung disease, according to a new study.
Frequent exposure to disinfectants, as well as using disinfectants with specific chemicals in them, such as bleach, were associated with a 22% to 32% increased risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), research found.
COPD is one of the three leading contributors to respiratory mortality in developed countries like the UK. In England alone, roughly 25,000 deaths each year are attributable to the disease.
Researchers said the study, involving 55,000 nurses, highlights the need for integrating health considerations into guidelines for cleaning and disinfection in healthcare settings such as hospitals. They also said the impact of using bleach and disinfectants in the home should be studied further.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name given to a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
It mainly affects middle-aged or older adults who smoke, according to the NHS.
Previous studies have linked exposure to disinfectants with breathing problems such as asthma, however researchers wanted to specifically look into the link between exposure to disinfectants and the development of COPD.
For the new study, researchers from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and Harvard University monitored the development of COPD in nurses.
The nurses’ exposure to disinfectants was evaluated via a questionnaire that assigned exposure to disinfectants by job or task.
Results were adjusted for factors that could have had an effect on the outcome, such as smoking, age, body mass index (BMI) and ethnicity.
“We found that nurses who use disinfectants to clean surfaces on a regular basis - at least once a week - had a 22% increased risk of developing COPD,” said Dr Orianne Dumas (PhD) from INSERM, France.
“There was a suggestion of a link with the weekly use of disinfectants to clean instruments but this was not statistically significant.”
When researchers looked into exposure related to specific disinfectants, they were shocked to find the following were associated with an increased risk of COPD of between 24% to 32%:
:: Glutaraldehyde - a strong disinfectant used for medical instruments
:: Hydrogen peroxide
:: Quaternary ammonium compounds (known as “quats”) which are mainly used for low-level disinfection of surfaces such as floors and furniture.
“In our study population, 37% of nurses used disinfectants to clean surfaces on a weekly basis and 19% used disinfectants to clean medical instruments on a weekly basis,” Dr Dumas said.
“Our findings provide further evidence of the effects of exposure to disinfectants on respiratory problems, and highlight the urgency of integrating occupational health considerations into guidelines for cleaning and disinfection in healthcare settings such as hospitals.”
Dr Dumas said more research needs to be carried out to evaluate the impact on COPD of lifetime occupational exposure to chemicals and clarify the role of each specific disinfectant
“Some of these disinfectants, such as bleach and quats, are frequently used in ordinary households, and the potential impact of domestic use of disinfectants on COPD development is unknown,” Dumas said.
“Earlier studies have found a link between asthma and exposure to cleaning products and disinfectants at home, such as bleach and sprays, so it is important to investigate this further.”