There are several ways to reduce risks when cleaning, including using soap and water rather than a disinfectant.
New research from the University of Saskatchewan suggests that cleaning surfaces with commercially available hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectants raises the level of airborne hydrogen peroxide to dangerously high levels, potentially leading to respiratory, skin, and eye irritation.
The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, found that cleaning a floor with the bleach alternative disinfectant raised the level of airborne hydrogen peroxide to more than 600 parts per billion, or approximately 60% of the maximum level permitted for exposure over 8 hours, and 600 times the level naturally occurring in the air.1 The study authors noted that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has led to increased demand for cleaning products, including bleach alternatives containing hydrogen peroxide.1
“When you’re washing surfaces, you are also changing the air you are breathing,” said senior author Tara Kahan, PhD, in a prepared statement. “Poor indoor air quality is associated with respiratory issues such as asthma.”1
Kahan noted that the team could not research this topic at the beginning of the pandemic because hydrogen peroxide solutions were out of stock.1 According to the United States’ National Capital Poison Center (NCPC), hydrogen peroxide splashed onto the skin could cause the skin to whiten for a short time and it could feel tingly. If this occurs the area should be rinsed with running water, and the same should be done if hydrogen peroxide is splashed into the eyes.2
Hydrogen peroxide used to be used to disinfect skin wounds, although this is no longer recommended. Researchers have found that hydrogen peroxide can irritate or damage the cells needed for wound healing, according to NCPC.2
In the new study, investigators sprayed a vinyl floor in a simulated room environment with 0.88% hydrogen peroxide disinfectant and wiped it dry with paper towels either immediately or after letting it soak for an hour. The investigators then tested the air at human head height.1
Kahan said there are several ways to reduce risks when cleaning, including using soap and water rather than a disinfectant. According to the Canadian university, soap and water are known to kill the virus that causes COVID-19. Kahan also said ventilation is important, whether through opening a window, turning on a range hood, or using a central air system. Proper ventilation can dramatically reduce the levels of pollutants circulating in the air and can remove particles carrying the virus.1
Despite the concerns around hydrogen peroxide, Kahan said it is still safer than bleach-based products. The impact of hydrogen peroxide on children and pets is not yet known, although it should be noted that they are physically close to the disinfected surfaces.1
“The real risk is for people who get repeatedly exposed, such as janitors and house cleaners,” Kahan concluded. “We washed the floor and collected measurements at face height—the concentrations will be even stronger at the floor or at the level of a countertop.”1