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Cleaning work and respiratory health

Cleaning products today avoid the use of ingredients that might cause occupational asthma in people who use them.

Many epidemiological studies around the world have found that people who work as cleaners are up to twice as likely to report respiratory problems as people doing office jobs for example. Numerous other jobs show similarly elevated reporting compared to office workers, ranging from waiters to bakers, metalworkers to painters, and farmers to beauticians and hairdressers. Some of these occupations involve contact with known allergens where exposure can lead to occupational asthma, including flour, wood dust and isocyanates used in spray painting, and the frequency of asthma is many times higher than in the general population.

Relatively few of the cleaners who report respiratory symptoms have occupational asthma, which is clearly diagnosable and the relevant agent can normally be identified by tests. Cleaning products today avoid the use of ingredients that might cause occupational asthma in people who use them. Historical studies have found that cleaners with occupational asthma were more often reacting to allergens in the place being cleaned, including moulds and fungi, than to a cleaning product.

The respiratory symptoms reported by some cleaners are normally not allergic: they often include wheezing and breathing difficulty but usually are not asthma as such. Such symptoms are more characteristic of irritation than allergy. Cleaning work is thus not a factor in the rise in allergies in recent decades. Such respiratory symptoms are also more common in people with particular lifestyles, including low income and poor living conditions, and smoking.

It is important to try to understand the origin of these symptoms. Are they triggered by certain products used, or by dust and other irritants in the place being cleaned? Has the condition originated from cleaning work, or is that only triggering symptoms where the condition has arisen from other causes or lifestyle factors more common among cleaners? If cleaning products are a factor, in order that the problem can be solved it is vital to understand whether the symptoms are arising from normal use as per instructions, from accidents and spills, or from misuse such as through mixing different products, not ensuring adequate ventilation or not wearing recommended protective equipment.