Regular Use of Bleach Linked to COPD

Medically Reviewed by Sheena Meredith, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 13, 2017 -- Regular use of disinfectants such as bleach is linked to a higher risk of lung diseases, according to a study's preliminary findings.

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

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

Researchers from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) looked at data from a long-term study of women nurses in the U.S.

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

They found that 37% of the nurses used disinfectants weekly. This was linked to a 22% higher risk of having COPD than those who did not use disinfectants each week.

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

The researchers say the findings took account of other things that could affect the chance of having COPD such as smoking, age, body mass index (BMI), and ethnicity.

The researchers say that previous studies have linked disinfectants with breathing problems, including asthma, among health care workers. But they say this study doesn't prove cause and effect, just an association.

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.

Sheena Cruickshank, MD, a senior lecturer in immunology at the University of Manchester, England, says, "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."