Risk in cleaning: chemical and physical exposure

Sci Total Environ. 1998 Apr 23;215(1-2):135-56. doi: 10.1016/s0048-9697(98)00110-7.


Cleaning is a large enterprise involving a large fraction of the workforce worldwide. A broad spectrum of cleaning agents has been developed to facilitate dust and dirt removal, for disinfection and surface maintenance. The cleaning agents are used in large quantities throughout the world. Although a complex pattern of exposure to cleaning agents and resulting health problems, such as allergies and asthma, are reported among cleaners, only a few surveys of this type of product have been performed. This paper gives a broad introduction to cleaning agents and the impact of cleaning on cleaners, occupants of indoor environments, and the quality of cleaning. Cleaning agents are usually grouped into different product categories according to their technical functions and the purpose of their use (e.g. disinfectants and surface care products). The paper also indicates the adverse health and comfort effects associated with the use of these agents in connection with the cleaning process. The paper identifies disinfectants as the most hazardous group of cleaning agents. Cleaning agents contain evaporative and non-evaporative substances. The major toxicologically significant constituents of the former are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), defined as substances with boiling points in the range of 0 degree C to about 400 degrees C. Although laboratory emission testing has shown many VOCs with quite different time-concentration profiles, few field studies have been carried out measuring the exposure of cleaners. However, both field studies and emission testing indicate that the use of cleaning agents results in a temporal increase in the overall VOC level. This increase may occur during the cleaning process and thus it can enhance the probability of increased short-term exposure of the cleaners. However, the increased levels can also be present after the cleaning and result in an overall increased VOC level that can possibly affect the indoor air quality (IAQ) perceived by occupants. The variety and duration of the emissions depend inter alia on the use of fragrances and high boiling VOCs. Some building materials appear to increase their VOC emission through wet cleaning and thus may affect the IAQ. Particles and dirt contain a great variety of both volatile and non-volatile substances, including allergens. While the volatile fraction can consist of more than 200 different VOCs including formaldehyde, the non-volatile fraction can contain considerable amounts (> 0.5%) of fatty acid salts and tensides (e.g. linear alkyl benzene sulphonates). The level of these substances can be high immediately after the cleaning process, but few studies have been conducted concerning this problem. The substances partly originate from the use of cleaning agents. Both types are suspected to be airway irritants. Cleaning activities generate dust, mostly by resuspension, but other occupant activities may also resuspend dust over longer periods of time. Personal sampling of VOCs and airborne dust gives higher results than stationary sampling. International bodies have proposed air sampling strategies. A variety of field sampling techniques for VOC and surface particle sampling is listed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution, Indoor / adverse effects*
  • Air Pollution, Indoor / analysis
  • Denmark
  • Detergents / adverse effects*
  • Detergents / chemistry
  • Detergents / classification
  • Disinfectants / adverse effects*
  • Disinfectants / chemistry
  • Dust / analysis
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Humans
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology*
  • Particle Size
  • Risk Assessment
  • Sick Building Syndrome / etiology*
  • Volatilization


  • Detergents
  • Disinfectants
  • Dust