Workers in the cleaning industry are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of cleaning products, Steve Teasdale explains.
Toxicity refers to a substance or product’s ability to cause adverse health effects to human (or other organisms).
Some cleaning products contain substances that are toxic to humans. Their effects can be felt immediately or for days, months or years after exposure. Toxicity is acute when the effects are immediate and chronic when they appear after repeated exposure.
Toxic substances can damage a person’s health in several ways: exposure by inhalation, skin contact, swallowing or irritation to the eyes.
Once breathed in, some substances attack the nose, throat or lungs, whereas others enter the body through the lungs and wreak havoc with other organs such as the liver.
Skin can become contaminated by direct contact with the substance. Further risks are posed by airborne dust particles that land on the skin, or by contact with contaminated surfaces – such as inside protective gloves.
When people transfer chemicals from their hands to their mouths by eating or smoking without washing their hands, they risk exposure by swallowing, while some vapours, gases and dusts are irritating to eyes. Aquatic toxicity
refers to the effect of cleaning products on aquatic fauna and flora in our lakes, rivers and water systems. All aquatic organisms – vertebrates (animals), plants and invertebrates (crustaceans and insects) – are susceptible.
Many cleaning products contain substances that have a negative impact, acute or chronic, on aquatic organisms. A highly biodegradable ingredient could still be toxic to aquatic life and vice versa.
When developing products, aim for the lowest possible aquatic toxicity. The parameter – called CDV-tox – reflects the aquatic toxicity of the formulation. It takes into account the toxicity of each ingredient and considers the useful dose (dilution rate before use) of the product.
Cleaning product developers should take into account three different trophic levels: vertebrates, invertebrates and plants and aim for low toxicity.
Practical steps to avoid exposure risks
1. Assess risk
You need to know how workers can be exposed to dangerous substances, and by how much, before you can decide if you need to take steps to reduce their exposure.
It is also wise to find high-performance products with low levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are responsible for deteriorating indoor air quality and present in many cleaning products. Aim for low-hazard classifications in concentrated or diluted solutions.
2. Practice good hygiene
Practice good hand care by washing hands for at least 20 seconds and drying them thoroughly. Apply skin creams regularly. Ensure any contamination is removed.
3. Follow good working practices
Use good work techniques that avoid or minimise contact with harmful substances and minimise leaks and spills. Adopt the ‘right dose approach’ – products are manufactured to work their best when following dilution guidance. There is often no benefit in exceeding the recommended dose and, depending on the product, this can have no beneficial performance impact, would cost more money, and make the risk higher and environmental damage worse.
4. Maintain PPE
Key personal protective equipment such as protective gloves, aprons and eye protection need checking and maintaining because if they fail vital protection can be lost and expose the wearer to danger.
5. Control ventilation
All workplaces should have an adequate supply of fresh air. This can be in the form of natural ventilation from doors and windows or it could be controlled where the air is supplied and/or removed by a powered fan. If you work in premises such as an office or shop, natural ventilation will normally be enough to control dusts and vapours from cleaning materials.
Steve Teasdale is co-founder and vice-president of Innuscience