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Regular use of bleach linked to COPD

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
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11th September 2017 – Regular use of disinfectants such as bleach is being linked to an increased risk of lung diseases, according to preliminary findings of a study.

Researchers say that weekly exposure to specific disinfectants was enough to raise the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by up to almost a third.

Bronchitis and emphysema

COPD is an umbrella term for several lung conditions including bronchitis and emphysema. People with COPD have difficulty emptying air from their lungs because their airways have narrowed.

Researchers from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) analysed data from a long-term study of health among women nurses in the US.

They picked out 55,185 working nurses who did not have COPD in 2009 and examined what happened to them over the next 8 years. During this period, 663 of the nurses were diagnosed with COPD.

The researchers used questionnaires to discover which disinfectants they had come into contact with and why they had used them. These included:

  • Glutaraldehyde (a strong disinfectant used for medical instruments)
  • Bleach
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Alcohol
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (known as 'quats') used to disinfect surfaces such as floors and furniture


Weekly use

They found that 37% of the nurses used disinfectants to clean surfaces on a weekly basis – and this was linked to a 22% higher risk of developing COPD than those who did not use disinfectants each week.

High level use of the specific disinfectants listed was associated with a 24% to 32% higher risk of COPD.

The researchers say the findings took account of other factors that could influence development of COPD such as smoking, age, body mass index (BMI) and ethnicity.

The researchers say that previous studies have linked exposure to disinfectants with breathing problems, including asthma, among healthcare workers. However, they say the observational nature of the latest study means they cannot prove cause and effect.

Unpublished work

The findings are being presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Milan, Italy. The results should be treated with caution as they have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Dr Sheena Cruickshank, a senior lecturer in immunology at the University of Manchester, comments in a statement: "COPD is a complex disease and it is known that the likelihood of developing COPD is greater if you have smoked and increases the longer you have smoked. Other factors that irritate the airways may further aggravate symptoms such as pollution (internal and external).

"Without being able to see the analysis, and how any adjustments were done for such factors as smoking, it is very difficult to know how significant this study is at this time."

Reviewed on September 11, 2017

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