Household bleach may raise children’s infection risk

(Reuters Health) – - At home and at school, cleaning with chlorine bleach is meant to kill germs that could make kids sick, but a large European study finds bleach may be having the opposite effect.

Children in The Netherlands, Finland and Spain who were regularly exposed to bleach-cleaned environments had higher rates of respiratory-tract infections, including influenza, bronchitis and tonsillitis.

“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 who led the study.

Previous studies have also linked cleaning products to respiratory health issues in children. This may be because inhaling fumes from bleach can damage the trachea, Casas said.

However, other research has found bleach use to be linked to lower rates of asthma and allergies in children, the researchers write in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

To sort out the effects of bleach exposure on kids, Casas told Reuters Health in an email, “We aimed to investigate if children living in homes cleaned with bleach had more infections than those living in homes where bleach was not used.”

The study team contacted the parents of over 9,000 children between the ages of six and 12 who attended schools in Spain, the Netherlands and Finland.

The research team administered a questionnaire asking how often 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 about their use of bleach for cleaning.

The results showed that bleach use was most common in Spain, where almost three quarters of households cleaned with it weekly. Bleach was used least often in Finland, where only 7 percent of households cleaned with 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.

Overall, respiratory tract infections were most common among Spanish children, although children from the Netherlands had the highest rates of flu.

Across all three countries, children of bleach users were more likely to experience infections. Children in homes cleaned with bleach were more likely to get the flu once per year and were also more likely to have recurrent tonsillitis.

In Finland, children living in homes using bleach were more likely to have recurrent tonsillitis and sinusitis than kids in homes that didn’t use bleach, while in Spain, they were more likely to have any recurrent infection.

Dutch children who were exposed to bleach in the home were more likely to have gotten the flu once in the last year. In addition, children in Dutch schools using bleach to clean were more likely to have any recurrent infection.

Casas noted that although the study shows a link between bleach and childhood illness, it does not prove that the use of bleach was what caused the infections.

If exposure to bleach is contributing to children’s infections, Casas explained, it may be because certain compounds in bleach such as chlorine can irritate and cause damage to parts of the respiratory tract. This damage may cause swelling and can facilitate infection, she said.

Alfred Bernard, a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, cautions that 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.”

In a study he recently published, Bernard did not find evidence of respiratory damage in adolescents living in homes cleaned with bleach. In fact, the respiratory damage he saw in teens was caused by swimming in chlorinated pools, he told Reuters Health in an email.

Bernard noted that bleach is a powerful disinfectant and can be useful in eliminating allergens as well as germs. However, he recommended that bleach should be used with caution and with proper ventilation “during and after cleaning until there is no chlorine smell left.”

Casas said that parents should be aware of the possible ill effects that cleaning products may have on their children’s health and advised that they “temper a little bit the idea that living in a totally disinfected home is good.”

SOURCE: Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online April 2, 2015.

This version of the story has been refiled to add missing punctuation in third paragraph.