Is disinfectant use during pregnancy linked to childhood asthma, eczema? Here’s what experts say

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A new population study notes that the use of disinfectants by pregnant women may be a risk factor for asthma and eczema in their children. Published online in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the study says that the odds of children having asthma or eczema were significantly higher if their mothers used disinfectant one to six times a week compared with the odds in children of mothers who never used them.

The authors used data on 78, 915 mother-child pairs who participated in the Japan Environment and Children’s Study to examine whether mothers’ exposure to disinfectants in the workplace was associated with an increased risk of a diagnosis of allergic diseases in their children when aged three years. The study noted that there was an exposure-dependent relationship between prenatal exposure to disinfectants and the odds of children experiencing these allergic conditions, with the children of mothers exposed to disinfectants every day having the highest odds of a diagnosis – 26 per cent greater for asthma, and 29 per cent greater for eczema than children of mothers who were never exposed.

Notably, disinfectants are used frequently in hospitals and other medical facilities, with the covid-19 pandemic leading to an increase in their use in medical settings and also more widely, including by the general population, to curb the spread of the virus.

What are disinfectants?

Disinfection is a process used in healthcare to destroy disease-causing organisms, said Dr Rohini Kelkar, senior consultant, clinical microbiology, Metropolis Healthcare Ltd. “Antisepsis is the use of disinfectants on the skin before surgery, for hands contaminated with microorganims. The commonly-used household disinfectants are Chlorhexidine gluconate, Quarternary ammonium compounds, and alcohol. It is necessary to disinfectant surfaces in hospitals contaminated with blood and other infectious material,” said Dr Kelkar.

Chemicals present in these disinfectants can cause skin irritation, allergies, infections, and eczema in newborn babies, said Dr Swati Gaikwad, consultant obstetrician, and gynaecologist, Motherhood Hospital, Pune. “It can aggravate respiratory health issues. Even those with existing respiratory problems will have a tough time if the disinfectants are used on a daily basis. They can damage the respiratory tract through prolonged or repeated exposure, if inhaled. Other signs like skin burns and eye irritation will also be seen,” she explained.

What to keep in mind?

According to Dr Gaikwad,

*Choose an appropriate disinfectant based on the type of surface to be disinfected (hard surface, soft surface, electronics).
*Opt for gloves while using disinfectants. Using the proper concentration and application method is essential.
*Don’t mix disinfectants with cleaners, other disinfectants, or other chemicals. It is better that pregnant women stay away from disinfectants or wear masks when they are used at home or outside.

It is important to consider a few things in pregnancy when it comes to mother and child’s health (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

Dr Kelkar advised against “indiscriminate use” of disinfectants. “Disinfectants are like antibiotics and should not be used indiscriminately. They can also cause infertility and create antibiotic resistant superbugs. If used on contact surfaces in kitchens, they can contaminate food in contact even after the cleaning is done,” she said.

Are there any alternatives?

According to Dr Kelkar, liquid soap and hot water are the ideal disinfectants for homes. “Handwashing with soap and water is the best way to prevent the transmission of infections. Sunlight is the best natural disinfectant,” she said.

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