The regular use of disinfectants could increase the chance of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by nearly a third, according to new preliminary research.
A study by Harvard University and The French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) examined more than 55,000 nurses in the United States since 2009. Researchers found certain tasks involving frequent exposure to disinfectants, such as cleaning surfaces, and specific chemicals in disinfectants, led to a 22 to 32 per cent increased risk of developing COPD.
Dr. Orianne Dumas, an INSERM researcher and study lead, presented findings at the European Respiratory Society International Congress this week. For the past eight years, 663 of the nurses were diagnosed with COPD.
“We found that nurses who use disinfectants to clean surfaces on a regular basis – at least once a week – had a 22 per cent increased risk of developing COPD,” says Dr. Dumas. “There was a suggestion of a link with the weekly use of disinfectants to clean instruments, but this was not statistically significant.”
The researchers also looked at exposure to specific disinfectants: glutaraldehyde (a strong disinfectant used for medical instruments), bleach, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol and quaternary ammonium compounds (known as “quats” and mainly used for low-level disinfection of surfaces such as floors and furniture). All of these were associated with an increased risk of COPD of between 24 and 32 per cent.
“In our study population, 37 per cent of nurses used disinfectants to clean surfaces on a weekly basis and 19 per cent used disinfectants to clean medical instruments on a weekly basis.” Dumas concluded.
Previous studies have linked exposure to disinfectants with breathing problems such as asthma among healthcare workers, but the link between disinfectant exposure and COPD has received much less attention. Two recent studies among Europeans showed that working as a cleaner was associated with a higher risk of COPD.
“To the best of our knowledge, we are the first to report a link between disinfectants and COPD among healthcare workers, and to investigate specific chemicals that may underlie this association,” Dumas says. “Our findings provide further evidence of the effects of exposure to disinfectants on respiratory problems, and highlight the urgency of integrating occupational health considerations into guidelines for cleaning and disinfection in healthcare settings such as hospitals.”