Cleaning with chlorine bleach, long a staple of household cleaning cupboard, could be linked to higher rates of respiratory infections a new European study has indicated.
The researchers found that children in Finland, the Netherlands and Spain who were regularly exposed to environments cleaned with bleach had higher rates of respiratory-tract infections, including influenza, bronchitis and tonsillitis than those who were exposed to environments not cleaned with bleach.
“We should be aware that some of the products (like bleach) that we use in our homes for cleaning are chemicals that may have also some effect on our health and also on our children’s health,” said Lidia Casas of the Center for Environment and Health in Belgium, leader of the study.
Prior studies have also linked cleaning products to respiratory health issues in children, who may be more susceptible than adults. The thinking is that the infections may be because inhaling fumes from bleach can damage the trachea, Casas said.
Other past research, however, has found bleach use to be linked to lower rates of asthma and allergies in children, the researchers wrote in April's edition of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
To sort out the effects of bleach exposure on kids the researchers aimed to investigate if children living in homes cleaned with bleach had more infections than those living in homes where bleach wasn't used.
The researchers contacted the parents of more than 9,000 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who attended schools in the Netherlands, Spain and Finland.
The research team has participants fill in a questionnaire asking how frequently the children had experienced infections such as the flu, bronchitis and pneumonia over the past year. The survey also asked if parents used bleach at least once per week to clean the house. The researchers also asked certain schools, where the children attended, about their use of bleach for cleaning.
The findings showed that the use of bleach was most common in Spain, where almost three-quarters of households cleaned with it weekly. Bleach was used least in Finland, where only 7 per cent of households used it. The same divide was seen in the schools, with all Spanish schools being cleaned with bleach, while none of the Finnish schools used it.
The researchers found that respiratory tract infections were most common among Spanish children, although children from the Netherlands had the highest rates of flu.
Casas noted that although the study shows a link between bleach and childhood illness, it does not show that the using bleach was what caused the infections.
If exposure to bleach is contributing to children’s infections, Casas theorized, it may be because certain chemcals in bleach such as chlorine can irritate and cause damage to parts of the respiratory tract. This damage may cause swelling and can increase the chance of infection, she said.
Alfred Bernard, a researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, cautions this explanation may not be the only possibility.
In the current study, as well as in some of his own research, Bernard said, “the effect of bleach on bronchitis risk was very small.”
Casas said that parents should take notice of the possible ill effects that cleaning products may have on the health of their children and suggested that they “temper a little bit the idea that living in a totally disinfected home is good.”