We’ve known for years that exposure to chemicals like asbestos and lead cause dangerous and lasting health effects. However, researchers are still working to understand how thousands of other chemicals we use every day could affect our health. Their latest findings have implications for LIUNA members in healthcare environments and for LIUNA members and their families at home.
New research links using disinfectants like bleach as little as once a week to a 24-32 percent increase in risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Other disinfectants linked to COPD were glutaraldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol and quaternary ammonium compounds (often shortened to “quats”). While it’s well-known that chemicals like ammonia and bleach can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma, this is the first study linking bleach and other disinfectants to COPD. Smoking remains the main cause of COPD, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates occupational exposures are responsible for half of all COPD cases in people who don’t smoke.
Glutaraldehyde-based products are used to sterilize equipment in healthcare facilities, appearing under names like Sonacide, Sporicidin and Hospex. It’s unlikely you have any of these in your home, but that’s probably not the case for bleach, hydrogen peroxide and quats. Quats are included in many antibacterial spray cleaners and fabric softeners. In the ingredient list, one common name for them is benzalkonium chloride, but there are many others. To see if products in your home contain quats, enter them into the Health & Human Services’ Household Product Database.
Whether you’re on the job or at home, the goal should be to eliminate or substitute potentially harmful chemicals whenever possible. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals continue to be used because they are so effective. When it’s not possible to avoid using harmful chemicals, follow these best practices to reduce your risk:
- Avoid aerosols and chemical sprays to reduce inhalation of airborne droplets. Apply chemicals directly to a rag and wipe the surface clean.
- Dilute chemicals to the lowest effective concentration.
- Ensure adequate ventilation in the area where chemicals are being used.
Employers can take these additional steps to protect workers:
- Require personal protective equipment like gloves and goggles, especially when mixing concentrated chemicals, to prevent skin and mucous membrane (eyes, nose, lips) exposures.
- Ensure room ventilation rates meet the minimum requirements of six air changes per hour.
- Increase the minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of air filters.
- Use fume hoods for mixing.
- Train workers on the hazards, how to prevent exposure and the health effects associated with exposure.
- Allow and encourage the voluntary use of particulate respirators.
Researchers are also taking a closer look at chemicals suspected of disrupting or altering the body’s hormones. Our endocrine system produces hormones that control our growth, reproduction, metabolism, development, behavior, sleep and immune system. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interrupt or imitate the natural function of these hormones. They’ve been linked to lower fertility, birth defects, learning and behavior problems in older children and increases in breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.
One common type of endocrine disruptor is phthalates. They are used in hundreds of products ranging from air freshener fragrances and cleaning products to garden hoses, shampoos and nail polish. They’re also used in food manufacturing, and are being found in mac and cheese and other food products. Like with lead, children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of harmful chemicals, so it’s especially important to protect them from exposure. While some states are starting to ban phthalates in children’s products, it’s still much easier to get a new product on the market than it is to remove one.
With so many potentially harmful chemicals in the products we use every day, what can we do to avoid them? Here are some other practices you can follow to reduce your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals:
- Avoid tobacco smoke, wood smoke from fireplaces and car exhaust.
- Look for products with the EcoLogo, Green Seal or Design for the Environment stamps.
- Avoid products with signal words like “danger” or “warning” on the label; “caution” usually signals a lower risk.
- Avoid products with an overwhelming chemical odor or those that cause eye, skin or lung irritation.
- Reduce use of air fresheners in your home. These products do not clean the air – they use chemicals to disguise other smells.
- Choose fragrance-free personal care products.
- If your house was built before 1978, get it screened for lead.
- Choose organic fruits and vegetables when possible to reduce pesticide exposure; eat low-mercury fish like salmon and trout.
- When buying furniture with padding, look for products without toxic flame retardants.
- Use nontoxic alternatives to pesticides in your lawn.