Health Risks of Improper Use of Cleaning Supplies

When it comes to foodservice sanitation, working with chemicals is a must to keep a restaurant clean. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations[1] require the use of cleaners and sanitizers and also provide guidelines for the proper environment to prepare and serve food. The risk of chemical exposure is a serious issue in the foodservice industry. Potential harm may be caused to those who come in contact with these chemicals if they are not trained properly.

Which Cleaning Materials Are Hazardous?

Some cleaning chemicals can be hazardous, causing problems ranging from skin rashes, burns, coughing to more serious illnesses. People can encounter hazardous chemicals by handling them directly or indirectly through vapor and residue. Exposure to these hazardous chemicals can have numerous side effects[2] or result in more dangerous, even life-threatening problems if used or stored improperly. Some of the most commonly handled hazardous chemicals include:

  • Window and Commercial Kitchen Cleaners with 2-Butoxyethanol: Commonly found in industrial “all-in-one” and window cleaners, 2-butoxyethanol[1] acts as a relatively non-volatile solvent. As a result, the chemical can enter a person’s body through skin contact or direct inhalation. Exposure at a high level can lead to kidney and liver damage[2]. Inhalation at lower levels typically irritates the throat and lungs. Chronic exposure has been correlated with neurodegenerative disorders[3].
  • Glass Cleaners and Sink Cleaners with Ammonia: Ammonia is one of the most produced industrial chemical[4] 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 can cause respiratory distress, burns, and in extreme cases, lead to respiratory failure. In addition, ammonia triggers olfactory adaptation, making it harder to smell it the longer a person is exposed to it. At lower concentrations, ammonia can irritate the body and can cause serious injury to the skin and eyes at higher concentrations.
  • Cleaners and Mildew Removers with Chlorine: Many disinfectants and cleaners contain chlorine[5]. Like ammonia, chlorine 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. Chlorine bleach should never be combined with ammonia since they can potentially form chloramines, which are gases that can cause irritation in the throat, nose, and eyes, as well as pneumonia and fluid in the lungs.
  • Cleaners with Sodium Hydroxide or Sodium Hypochlorite: Sodium hydroxide[6] is typically found in oven and drain cleaners. It is odorless and may irritate the eyes and skin through indirect and cause thermal and chemical burns through direct contact. Sodium Hypochlorite[1] is typically found in bleach cleaners and belongs to the family of chlorines. Chlorine gas may be released from hypochlorite solutions, which may irritate the skin and eyes. Since chlorine can be released, it is essential to avoid contact with products containing ammonia. Higher concentrations may cause chemical burns, and ingesting concentrate can result in corrosive injury.
  • Dry-Cleaning Solutions with Perchloroethylene: Tetrachloroethylene or PERC[2] 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.
  • Scented Cleaning Products with Phthalates: Phthalates are one of the most used chemicals in cleaners, fragrances, cosmetics, food packaging, and various personal care products. Nearly all Americans test positive for phthalates in their urine[3]. 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. They have been linked to changes in hormone levels[4] and could potentially be related to more health issues as research progresses.

Employee Training for Proper Use of Cleaning Products

Properly training employees on how to handle cleaning products safely is essential. Reducing risk and increasing employee understanding will keep a commercial kitchen operating successfully. The following steps outline strategies to help educate staff on the proper use of hazardous chemicals:

  • Implement a 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[5] is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard.
  • Maintain safety data sheets (SDSs) for all products: According to OSHA guidelines, employers must obtain and maintain SDSs for all cleaning products and chemicals that they use and make them readily accessible to workers. SDSs include important information such as ingredients, possible symptoms, and health problems, first-aid measures, and PPE recommendations.
  • Educate staff on mixing chemicals: Some chemicals, such as chlorine and ammonia, should never be mixed. Provide SDSs 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 cautions and 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 properly dispensing 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 SDS or contact the national poison control center[6] right away to get advice about specific chemicals after exposure. Immediately after chemical exposure has occurred, the following general steps should be taken:

  • Call 911: If the victim is unresponsive, having trouble breathing, in shock, call 911 immediately.
  • Remove from contact: The exposure victim should be evacuated from the area of the gases and away from direct contact with the chemical. Remove any of the victim’s clothing or items that may have come into contact with the chemical. When helping a victim of exposure, it is important to wear PPE to minimize further contact.
  • Evacuate to fresh air: Evacuation may include leaving the room or building entirely, as airborne particles can spread or increase in concentration. Once cleared from the exposure area, evaluate the seriousness of the situation, and seek emergency help if needed.
  • Cleanse skin: Make sure the chemical is not activated with water by reading labels and SDS first. If the chemical does not have activation with water, flush the area for at least 15 minutes using a gentle flow.
  • Irrigate eyes[7]: 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, rinse the affected eye without spreading the chemical to the other eye. This may involve tilting the head and flushing downward.
  • Consult the SDS: Reference the SDS to identify any delayed or hidden effects. The SDS should stay with the victim; if it is unavailable, contact a healthcare provider or poison control.
  • Refer to expert guidance: OSHA provides a hazard index of toxic industrial chemicals[8] on its website.

Use Non-Toxic Restaurant Cleaning Product Alternatives

Today, there are many non-toxic products on the market that may provide alternatives for cleaning and disinfecting. However, having the word “green” in a name or on a container label does not ensure that a chemical is proper to use. All cleaning chemical products should be carefully reviewed to understand their health and safety hazards. Restaurant managers need to evaluate their cleaning and disinfecting needs and consider other options, including bleach-free alternatives.

Facility managers should also note recent advances in cleaning practices and the availability of modern cleaning equipment that minimizes the use of chemicals. These include no-touch technologies, such as UVC-light systems, high-filtration vacuums, and other chemical-free cleaning systems.


  1.  “FDA Food Code” 2021
  2.  “Hazardous substances in frequently used professional cleaning products?” 2014
  3.  “Public Health Statements” 2021
  4.  “Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet” 2008
  5.  “Potential neurotoxic effect of ethylene glycol ethers mixtures”  2013
  7. “Chlorine gas from household cleaners?” 2018
  8.  “Sodium Hydroxide” 2021
  10.  “Tetrachloroethylene” 2021
  11.  “What Are Phthalates??” 2016
  12.  “Phthalates: Toxic Chemicals in Vinyl Plastic?” 2021
  13.  “Personal Protective Equipment?” 2021
  14.  “Poison control center – emergency number” 2021
  15.  “How to Safely Flush Your Eyes” 2016
  16. “OSHA Occupational Chemical Database”  2021