Scientists warn about dangers of disinfectants

“It’s ironic that the chemicals we’re deploying in vain for one health crisis are actually fueling another.”


A science advisory board has recommended adding the chemical group quaternary ammonium compounds, also known as QACs or “quats,” to the list of regulated toxic and hazardous substances. With the wide use of many disinfectant sprays and wipes during the pandemic, scientists point to the many health and environmental impacts of quaternary ammonium compounds found in these products.

Quaternary ammonium compounds found in disinfectant sprays and wipes, along with pesticides, paint and personal care products are dermal absorbed or inhaled or the chemicals attach to dust and go airborne and can cause asthma, infertility, congenital disabilities, along with immune system and metabolic disruptions as well as harm aquatic life, according to the study.

“It’s ironic that the chemicals we’re deploying in vain for one health crisis are actually fueling another,” Erica Hartmann, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said.

The authors of the peer-reviewed study titled, Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: A Chemical Class of Emerging Concern, said antimicrobial resistance can make drug-resistant viruses and bacteria known as “superbugs.”

“One of the top reasons to use antimicrobials only when needed is that overuse leads to the rise of antimicrobial resistance, which contributes to millions of deaths per year worldwide,” Courtney Carignan, co-author of the recent study and assistant professor at Michigan State University, said.

Professionals such as housekeepers, food or medical equipment preparation, dental assistants and nurses, are said to be “more highly exposed” to quaternary ammonium compounds. The study also found children and teachers had an elevated exposure to quats.

“Disinfectant wipes containing [quats] are often used on children’s school desks, hospital exam tables and in homes where they remain on these surfaces and in the air,” Carignan said.

Scientists said U.S. regulation of quaternary ammonium compounds varies. While pesticides list quats, paints do not, therefore, most quats go unregulated. But in a statement from Anastasia Swearingen, director of the Center for Biocide Chemistries, which is part of the American Chemistry Council, she told Environmental Health News that quats are “rigorously evaluated for their human health and environmental safety and remain important chemistries used to protect public health.”

“While disinfection is not always necessary, there are many important government guidelines, rules and disinfection protocols in place to reduce outbreaks of infectious diseases,” Swearingen said.

The study concluded that the use of soap and water is the safest for general cleaning purposes and urged “regulatory agencies to provide more clarity around the chemicals, including more research on quats’ health effects, better labeling and elimination of non-essential uses,” The Guardian reported.

“Chemicals of concern should only be used where their function is necessary for health and safety, or is critical for the functioning of society, and no safer alternatives exist,” the study concluded.


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