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Illnesses From Disinfectants Higher For Teens Than Adults
(Beyond Pesticides, December 24, 2003)
Working youth face safety and health risks from occupational exposure to disinfectants at a rate far higher than adults, according to a study published in the October 2003 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). The study, “Acute Occupational Disinfectant-Related Illness Among Youth, 1993-1998,” reviewed data from the federal government and the state of California from 1993 through 1998 and found 307 reported cases of acute occupational disinfectant-related illness, or an average of 51 cases per year. Teens showed a four-fold increased risk of illness from exposure to disinfectants than adults.

Disinfectants are among the janitorial supplies used in institutional, commercial and consumer settings. They are also widely used in the food industry to assist in the production, preservation, preparation and serving of foods. The study found that, although 32% of employed California youth aged 15-17 worked in eating and drinking establishments, that industry accounted for 57% of reported illnesses.

The study analyzed records from the U.S. government’s Toxic Exposure Surveillance System and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Hypochlorites, the category of disinfectant that includes bleach, were responsible for 45% of the illnesses. In most cases, the youth were not wearing basic protective equipment like gloves and goggles.

“These findings suggest the need for greater efforts to prevent adolescent acute occupational disinfectant-related illness,” the study authors write. “This may require strengthening regulations and enforcement as well as increased educational efforts directed at employers, youth, parents, school officials, and physicians. Better mechanisms for reporting and tracking chemical illnesses among working adolescents are also needed.”

Commenting on the study, Dr. Jim Burkhart, science editor for EHP, says, “Young people are often less educated about the dangers of disinfectants, less likely to resist assignments that could be dangerous, and less likely to report exposure. While none of the case studies resulted in significant disability or disfigurement, we need to make sure employers, parents and teens know about basic precautions.”

According to EPA, approximately one billion dollars are spent on a variety of different types of antimicrobial products, including disinfectants, each year. There are 275 registered antimicrobial active ingredients and more than 5000 antimicrobial products currently on the market. EPA’s website states that their use does “involve risks of potential efficacy failure and exposure hazards.”

Because disinfectants, along with other pesticides, can contaminate indoor air and result in serious health effects, especially for children, take steps to minimize dirt and grime and use less toxic alternatives for cleaning like vinegar and baking soda.

For a copy of the study, go to www.ehponline.org.