QUATS, or quaternary ammonia compounds, are commonly used in disinfectants. But do we know how safe they are, especially when repeatedly use? Research suggests that Quats are linked to systemic toxicity in humans, as well as largely responsible for the recent increase in superbug, or strains of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that are resistant to most of the antibiotics and other medications commonly used to treat the infections they cause. Here's what we know.
The History of QUATS
Quaternary ammonium compounds (”quats”) are potent disinfectant chemicals commonly found in antibacterial cleaning products like disinfecting wipes and sprays. They entered the market in the early 20th century before the EPA began regulating the manufacture and sale of potentially harmful chemicals under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. As a result, quats counted as existing chemicals on the market that could continue being included in consumer products without being evaluated for safety. However, the compounds have been extensively tested for safety, says Keith Hostetler, a toxicologist at Toxicology Regulatory Services, a consulting company under contract by groups representing quat manufacturers. Quats are currently registered as pesticides with the EPA, but are currently being updated for risk assessments, which will be released for public comment later this year, 2021.
Why You Should Care
Quats are overkill for your routine household cleaning needs. It’s like killing a fly with a sledgehammer. Products containing Quats are often misused. For example, Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, 409, Ecolab products and Pine-Sol contain quats, and surfaces treated with these products are supposed to be rinsed with water according to their Safety Data Sheets and registration information listed by the EPA. When quats products are misused routinely, a toxic residual buildup is left on surfaces that can cause skin rashes and dermatitis, asthma and breathing problems, and reproduction harm including potential fertility problems and birth defects.
A normal mouse embryo (left) and one that developed a neural tube defect (right, arrow) from mothers exposed to quat disinfectants. These 10-days-old embryos are typically 1-2 mm wide. In addition, there is emerging science that is showing exposure to quats is harming sperm quality, reducing fertility and resulting in birth defects in mice.
While the research looking at the relationship between Quats and birth defects continues, people should be more concerned with local irritation effects. Among workers like janitors or nurses who routinely handle concentrated disinfectant solutions, the occupational health risks associated with using quats are well established, including dermal irritation, skin sensitization, and occupational asthma. This is one reason why packages of antibacterial wipes that contain Quats strongly recommend washing your hands after use- a factor that really takes the convenience out of using a wipe in the first place. When we look into Quats use in homes, there is concerns to be had as well. Because while quats do kill germs on surfaces, studies of quat use in households have never been able to show that it makes you or your family any healthier than if you used soap and water. Truly, not a single study has been able to show reduced illness at home from using antibacterial cleaners (click this link to go to the FDA's article). So, while there are not reported advantages to using Quats cleaners, there are many disadvantages that have been well-researched and documented.
How To Identify Quats In Products
The advantage is that you can easily avoid quats in the products you use at home. Look for cleaning products that do NOT advertise as “antibacterial”. Or if they do – check the front label which is required to list the “active ingredients” and avoid products which contain ingredients that look like this:
Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides (C12-16)
Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (C14 60%, C16 30%, C12 5%, C18 5%)
Alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride (C12-14)
Alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chlorides (C12-18)