A new study finds that exposure to a mixture of chemicals commonly found in household and commercial cleaning products can lead to birth defects in laboratory animals that can last for generations. The mixture of chemicals in question are known as quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats. This study is significant because it marks the first official investigation of the impacts of these chemicals on the development of embryos or fetuses. This is also the first to observe quats linked to birth defects.
In 2016, the FDA finally banned triclosan from hand soaps, the common ingredient used in disinfectants, with the possibility to ban quats next. This new study highlights concerns over quats and the need to extend the ban to include these generally unsafe chemicals.
What Are Quats?
Quaternary Ammonium compounds (quats) are a group of chemicals classified as allergy and asthma enhancers. They are widely used in cleaning, disinfection, laundry and personal care products as antimicrobial and fabric-softening agents or as preservatives. Exposure to quats can cause severe skin and eye irritation.
New Research Finds Quats Linked to Birth Defects
The study was performed by Virginia Tech and Washington State University researchers. Mice were fed a combination of quats including alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (the active ingredient in Clorox disinfecting wipes) and didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride. Exposure also occurred by airborne levels and surface residues of disinfectant mixtures from routine cleaning of the labs and cages. The health impacts were noticeable whether the exposure was through ingestion or inhalation of the chemicals.
Researchers reported a 150% increase in the rate of neural tube defects, an abnormality that occurs in rodents and humans. This is alarming because neural tube defects are the second most common form of birth defects in humans. Neural tube defects frequently manifest as spina bifida. Spina bifida is a harmful condition associated with nerve damage, muscle weakness and issues with walking, learning, and bladder/bowel problems.
In a previous study by the same group of researchers, mice exposed to the quats mixture also had impaired fertility and lower sperm concentration and mobility.
Exposure to Quats
According to EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, the quats evaluated in both studies mentioned above have been found in more than 170 products. Unfortunately, that number is a low estimate because many manufacturers do not commonly list these ingredients.
In the newest study, scientists found that ambient exposure to the chemicals such as in the air or on surfaces, not only caused an increase in neural tube defects, but had an even greater impact on the occurrence of these defects than deliberate feeding. They also noted that ambient exposure could cause transgenerational effects. This means the defects can persist through subsequent generations, even in mice that have never been directly exposed to quats.
There is also some evidence that quats are behind increased cases of asthma and dangerous allergies as we discuss here.
Read Your Labels
A California law passed in 2017 will require cleaning product manufacturers to disclose all ingredients in their products. You will still, however, have to know what you are looking for. One commonly found ingredient that is considered a “quat” is Benzalkoium chloride. This ingredient is often used in hand sanitizers, even in products perceived to be organic, including Babyganics Foaming Hand Sanitizer. So remember to check when you buy and not be fooled by marketing messages hidden in the name or imagery on a product.