Effects of Toxic & Harmful Commercial Cleaning Chemicals

Health Risks of Using Improper Cleaning Supplies

When it comes to foodservice sanitation, it is impossible to avoid working with chemicals in a restaurant. FDA regulations require the use of cleaners and sanitizers, and staff are responsible for maintaining a clean, safe environment to prepare and serve food.

However, while many restaurant cleaning and sanitizing supplies are safe, hazardous chemical exposure is still a serious issue in the foodservice industry. Aside from the potential harm caused to those who come in contact with these chemicals, legal consequences may result as well.

Which Cleaning Materials Are Hazardous

Commercial-grade cleaning products can contain hazardous chemicals. These chemicals can come into contact with people handling them directly, or indirectly through vapor and residue. Exposure to these hazardous chemicals can have numerous side-effects. Some of the most commonly handled hazardous chemicals are listed below.

Window and Commercial Kitchen Cleaners With 2-Butoxyethanol

Commonly found in industrial all-in-one and window cleaners, 2-butoxyethanol acts as a relatively non-volatile solvent. The chemical can enter your body through skin contact or direct inhalation. Exposure at a high level can lead to kidney and liver damage. Inhalation of lower levels typically causes irritation to the throat and lungs. Chronic exposure has been correlated with blood and neurological disorders.

Glass Cleaners or Sink Cleaners with Ammonia

Ammonia is one of the most produced industrial chemicals in the U.S. At room temperature it takes a gaseous form, but is easily compressed into a liquid. Exposure typically happens through inhalation, where it causes respiratory distress, burns, and, in extreme cases, respiratory failure. This chemical triggers olfactory adaptation, making it harder to smell the longer a person is exposed to it. At lower concentrations, ammonia can cause irritation to the body; at higher concentrations, it can cause serious injury to the skin and eyes.

Cleaners and Mildew Removers with Chlorine

Chlorine can be found in many disinfectants and cleaners. Like ammonia, it is gaseous at room temperature, so exposure typically occurs through inhalation. Light exposure may result in irritation to the eyes and nose, while direct contact with chlorine can cause severe chemical burns. Chlorine is heavier than air, so using it in poorly ventilated areas can result in asphyxiation. It should never be combined with ammonia, as this combination can potentially form hydrazine, which causes severe damage to the central nervous system.

Cleaners with Sodium Hydroxide or Sodium Hypochlorite

Sodium hydroxide is typically found in oven and drain cleaners. It is odorless, and may cause irritation to the eyes and skin through indirect contact, and thermal and chemical burns through direct contact.

Sodium Hypochlorite is normally found in bleach cleaners and belongs to the family of chlorines. Chlorine gas may be released from hypochlorite solutions, which may cause irritation to the skin and eyes. Since chlorine can be released, it is important to avoid contact with products containing ammonia. Higher concentrations may cause chemical burns, with ingestion of concentrate causing corrosive injury.

Dry-Cleaning Solutions with Perchloroethylene

Tetrachloroethylene or PERC is commonly found in degreasing and dry cleaning products. Contact with the chemical is usually made via inhalation with odor being the primary indicator of acute exposure. Lower levels of exposure lead to respiratory irritation, while increased exposure may lead to central nervous system conditions such as drowsiness and dizziness. Extreme exposure can lead to coma, and in some cases can cause death. The chemical is not absorbed quickly through the skin.

Scented Cleaning Products with Phthalates

Phthalates are one of the most commonly used chemicals, and are included in cleaners, fragrance, cosmetics, food packaging, and various personal care products. It is so common that nearly all Americans test positive for phthalates in their urine. While there is a lack of definitive research detailing the effects of phthalates on the human body, it does not mean that there is no effect at all. They have been linked to changes in hormone levels, and could potentially be linked to more issues as research progresses.

Antibacterial Soaps & Detergents with Triclosan

Triclosan is a chemical that is added to a variety of products to help reduce bacterial contagions. It is found in a wide variety of soaps, toothpaste, and some cosmetic products. It has been found that soaps containing triclosan did not have any additional skin sanitizing effects compared to soaps not containing triclosan.

Studies have not conclusively found negative implications related to triclosan in humans, but short-term animal studies have found that high exposure to triclosan was associated with a decrease in the level of some thyroid hormones in animals.

How to Mitigate Health Risks and Complications

Operating a commercial kitchen can be a risky undertaking, especially if liability exposures have not been properly mitigated. Insurance companies are perpetually analyzing insurance claims related to restaurants as they often have substantial costs associated with them. Claims against employers raise insurance rates and can incur sizeable penalties.

Employee Training for Proper Cleaning Product Use

One of the most important jobs that staff will have is to properly train employees on how to handle cleaning products. Reducing risk and increasing employee understanding are two of the best ways to keep a commercial kitchen operating successfully. The following list will outline some excellent strategies to help educate staff on the proper use of hazardous chemicals:

  • Implement a proper protective equipment training program: Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”) is necessary to prevent direct contact with chemicals from both spills and inhalation. Educating staff on PPE is an OSHA standard.
  • Educate staff on mixing chemicals: Some chemicals, such as chlorine and ammonia, should never be mixed. Provide a SDS for employees to easily reference before using chemicals.
  • Read labels closely: Staff should be aware of the toxic properties of the cleaning products they will use. Labels typically include caution warnings.
  • Establish proper storage areas: Having an easily accessible and dedicated storage area will help prevent spills and misplacement of cleaning solutions.
  • Teach proper dispensing techniques: To further prevent spills and accidental contact, the staff should be educated on how to properly dispense chemicals from their containers. Pre-moistened wipes, rather than bulk chemicals, can reduce the risks of chemical spills.

Responding After Chemical Exposure

Always consult the safety data sheet (SDS), or contact the National Poison Control Center to get advice related to specific chemicals after exposure. Generally speaking, immediately after chemical exposure has occurred, it should be handled in the following manner:

  • Remove from contact: The exposure victim should be evacuated from gases and direct contact with the chemical. Remove any clothing or accessories from the victim that have come into contact with the chemical. When handling a victim of exposure, it is important to wear PPE yourself to minimize further contact.
  • Evacuate to fresh air: This may include leaving the room or building entirely, as airborne particles can spread or increase in concentration. If necessary, a trained individual should provide CPR or resuscitation once clear of exposure.
  • Irrigate eyes: Using water or an emergency eyewash solution, flush the affected eye(s) for at least 15 minutes. If using water, ensure that the water temperature is cool. If only one eye is affected make sure to rinse the affected eye without spreading the chemical to the other eye. This may involve tilting and flushing downward.
  • Cleanse skin: Before using water to flush the affected area, make sure to brush away any water-activated chemicals from the skin. If the chemical does not have activation with water, then flush the area for at least 15 minutes. If the water flow is too strong, it can cause further pain and damage.
  • Consult the SDS: Reference the SDS to locate any delayed or hidden effects. The SDS should stay with the victim; if it is unavailable, contact a healthcare provider or poison control.
  • Call 911: If the victim is unresponsive, having trouble breathing, in shock, or has a large affected area, it is advisable to immediately call 911.

OSHA provides a hazard index of toxic industrial chemicals online.

Use Safe Restaurant Cleaning Product Alternatives

The easiest way to reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals is to replace them with safe alternatives. This could be as simple as replacing harsh disinfectants with bleach-free alternatives and educating staff on their use. Deciding which products are actually safer to use, and which products are designed to appear that way can be challenging. The Environmental Working Group can help discern these differences and suggest non-hazardous chemical alternatives. The steps below will assist in guiding restaurants towards the finding alternatives:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Set criteria for alternatives.
  3. Search for alternatives: The internet, suppliers, official reports, and authorized representatives are excellent resources.
  4. Compare alternatives.
  5. Experiment.
  6. Implement.

Non-toxic cleaning supplies are great alternatives for most modern hazardous cleaning products. It will take dedication to replace hazardous products, but the safety afforded by doing so is worth the investment.