Centre for International Health
Research results

Cleaning can be bad for your health??

Professor Cecilie Svanes’ research results went viral, and have been discussed in the British Parliament and in the popular press.

Cecilie Svanes in Brussels
Cecile Svanes @CihUib talking about research impact on cleaning industry @UiBAlumni seminar in Brussels. @UiB #uibmed (tweeted 7.3.2019)
Med_UiB‏ @medofak_uib

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How research can impact policy and industry

Painstakingly, following study participants for over 20 years, Svanes and colleagues have been documenting declining lung function in people working as cleaners or doing cleaning at home. Such meticulous documentation is necessary because of the large industrial interests involved. Their studies have shown that in occupational cleaning especially, but even in home cleaning, exposure to spray cleaning products can cause asthma and declining lung function.

Read more:

"While the short-term effects of cleaning chemicals on asthma are becoming increasingly well documented, we lack knowledge of the long-term impact," said senior study author Cecile Svanes, MD, PhD, a professor at the university's Centre for International Health. "We feared that such chemicals, by steadily causing a little damage to the airways day after day, year after year, might accelerate the rate of lung function decline that occurs with age. […] The authors found that the accelerated lung function decline in the women working as cleaners was "comparable to smoking somewhat less than 20 pack-years."

(A “pack-year” is calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked. For example, 1 pack-year is equal to smoking 20 cigarettes (1 pack) per day for 1 year.)


Translating research into policy – a motion at the British Parliament

Last year, 14 May a motion was placed before the House of Commons in the British Parliament stating:

”That this House notes research by the Department of Clinical Science at Bergen University which shows that exposure to cleaning products can be as damaging to lung function as smoking 20 cigarettes a day; further notes the occupational health risks faced by people who work as cleaners; expresses dissatisfaction at the current regulation of cleaning products; and calls on the government to bring forward proposals for labelling of cleaning products to warn of the health risks, to work with the industry to make such products as safe as possible, and to bring forward regulations to minimise health risks.”

It did not take long for the news to go viral … For example, the EssexLive reported: “Mums say Essex cleaning queen Mrs Hinch makes them feel ‘depressed’”, and quoted Svanes in their article about YouTube cleaning sensation, Mrs Hinch.


Translating research to lasting impacts

It is one thing to have a research result that implies significant implications for public health – the next question is how best to translate the results to action? Svanes and colleagues wondered about WHO to inform and HOW to inform them.

Certainly having a motion tabled in the British House of Commons was something of a publicity coup, attracting national attention interest at the leadership level. Svanes was invited to attend a meeting at the UK Parliament as a scientific expert. Participants included government officials, trade union leaders, Health and Safety leaders etc. Topics discussed included, labelling of cleaning products, working with the industry to develop measures to make the products as safe as possible, and proposing regulations to minimize health risks. 

The Norwegian Labour Authority followed suit issuing their own warnings for workplaces – in 3 languages (Norwegian, English and Polish) – see image below.

Norwegian Labour Authority
Cecilie Svanes

Informing industry

March 2019, Svanes was invited to a large European conference to speak about the research findings to industry leaders, Cleaning Products Europe 2019. Companies are now working on how concrete initiatives such as changing the spray head to increase particle/droplet size. Research in this area is on-going.

From research to policy to industry to society, Svanes’ work is an example of successful translation of research results. The net outcome will be improved health!