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We all know things like asbestos wreak havoc on the lungs, but could common household chemicals cause or worsen bronchitis too?

Hear the term "occupational bronchitis", and you probably immediately think of heavy industry. Could household chemicals you generally think of as helpful also cause a kind of "occupational bronchitis", whether you're exposed to them as a janitor, while working in retail or the restaurant industry, or even at home? If you're already looking for over-the-counter medications that can treat chronic bronchitis, it's time to take a critical look at the harmful chemicals in your immediate environment!

What Is Industrial Or Occupational Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is a condition in which the lining of the bronchial tubes becomes inflamed, causing shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. It can be acute or chronic, and though bronchitis is most often associated with viral or bacterial infections, irritants can cause it, too. [1]

Industrial bronchitis, or occupational bronchitis, is bronchitis that occurs as a result of exposure to such irritants at work. They can be fumes, dust, smoke, and a wide variety of chemicals. Most of us would easily guess that things like asbestos, coal, talc, and toluene diisocyanate (just the name sounds dangerous, no?) aren't good for the lungs and might contribute to occupational bronchitis. Less obvious candidates include cotton, latex, metals, and silica. [2] Research shows that people who work in textile, wood, paper, and chemical plants are at an increased risk of developing chronic bronchitis, as are agricultural and food processing workers. [3]

Could These 'Unfriendly Neighborhood' VOCs In Your Home Be Causing Or Worsening Your Bronchitis?

Volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs for short, are gases emitted from things you're surrounded by in your everyday life. [4] These shocking sources of indoor air pollution include teflon pans, newly installed carpets, gas stoves, paint, and even cleaning and cosmetic products. They're all bad news, but some have specifically linked to bronchitis.

I'm writing this article after developing bronchitis following exposure to mothballs over a period of time. These mothballs contain a chemical called naphthalene, which has indeed been linked to bronchitis — as well as many other nasties. [5] Though I assume most people don't have these in their homes or workplaces, those who do are at risk. They are also, unfortunately, far from the only danger lurking somewhere in your daily life. 

Formaldehyde is another chemical compound that has been associated with the development of bronchitis [6], and more products than you might think contain it — many glues, primers, dish washing detergents, body washes, shampoos, and upholstery cleaners, for instance [Find a more complete list here: 7].

Benzene, another common offender [8], can be found in things like motor oil, dishwashing detergents, and adhesive removers [9]. Methylene chloride, again linked to bronchitis [10], is often found in paint strippers and stain removers [11]. O-xylene is yet another VOC that might be contributing to your bronchitis or making it worse [12], and you'll find it in products of a similar nature [13]. 

When Your Comfort Zone Has Become A Hazard: What Can You Do To Minimize VOC Exposure?

You may never have had any kind of respiratory discomfort before, other than the odd cold, and suddenly develop wheezing, a nasty, mucus-producing cough, and awful shortness of breath that leaves you quite frightened. If this happens, your family doctor should obviously be your first stop. If you don't smoke, don't work with obviously harmful substances, and don't live in a place with high levels of air pollution, your next step might be to see what you have around the house that could be contributing to your condition. 

People who have already been diagnosed with respiratory conditions including chronic bronchitis should, meanwhile, also turn their attention to VOCs — we know they can worsen your symptoms [4]. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends the following steps to reduce your exposure to volatile organic compounds [14]:

  • Increase ventilation and indoor air quality — this could mean opening windows and installing positive input ventilation units. 
  • Not using products that emit VOCs when you can avoid it — you may switch to roll-on deodorant and stop using hairspray, for instance. If you do have to use products that use VOCs, limit your exposure, by leaving the home after their use, for instance, by line drying your washing outdoors, or by wearing a mask with an air filter when you use harmful substances.
  • Don't keep opened containers of things that emit VOCs around. These can include glues, paints, primers, and motor oils. Keep them away from your home or direct place of work, in a shed outside of the house for instance. 

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