A new study warns that certain cleaning products that have been widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic may do more harm than good.

The researchers emphasized that cleaning products containing so-called quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) can be linked to asthma, dermatitis and inflammation in humans.

Experts say soap and water and cleaning products that don’t contain these chemicals are safer to reach and recommend better regulation of QACs.

The study, published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology, reviewed scientific literature conducted both before and after the pandemic began and found that use of products containing QACs has increased and there is a lack of adequate regulation Research.

“Sanitizing wipes containing QACs are commonly used on children’s school desks, hospital exam tables, and in homes where they remain on those surfaces and in the air,” said Courtney Carignan, co-author and assistant professor at Michigan State University, in a press release. “Our review of the science suggests that disinfecting with these chemicals is unhelpful or even harmful in many cases. We recommend regular cleaning with soap and water and disinfecting only when necessary with safer products.”

QACs are a very common class of chemicals used in numerous products as antimicrobials, preservatives and plasticizers, and provide the active ingredient in many cleaning and disinfecting products.

They’re very commonly found in disinfectant wipes, a cleaning tool that saw heavy use at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as consumers sought to make their spaces as safe as possible.

Since 2020, research has determined that COVID-19 is an airborne virus and does not spread easily by merely touching a contaminated surface. But many are still disinfecting surfaces at higher levels than they did before the pandemic, researchers suggested, and may not be aware that some of the common products they reach for could pose health concerns.

“Despite the widespread use and release of QACs into the environment, most QACs have not undergone rigorous regulatory evaluation for potential adverse human and ecological health effects,” the researchers wrote in the study.

In their review of the existing scientific literature on QACs, the researchers found that these chemicals reside in our wastewater and enter our environment. Some studies have shown that many QACs are “moderately to highly toxic” to some fish species, but researchers noted that research on the effects of QACs on terrestrial organisms is lacking.

However, when it comes to humans, there appears to be a clear link between QACs and negative health outcomes, the study found.

“These products that we use sit on the surfaces that we clean, and they stay there for a while — think of a classroom where everything gets wiped down — and they’re also in the air, and the question is: can they harm our health?” said dr Marla Shapiro, CTV Medical Contributor, in an interview with the CTV News Channel on Tuesday. “So this is a study that looked at just that.”

The researchers combed through studies looking at the effects of chronic exposure to QACs and found that exposure may be associated with an increased risk of certain health problems.

“Think of the fact that you’re breathing in some of these compounds because they’re sitting on surfaces. So they’ve been linked to some health issues,” Shapiro said. “For example, some of the health problems that we see are things like asthma because you breathe in these compounds, dermatitis because it gets on your hands.”

A study included in this new review found that nurses with high exposure to disinfectants and cleaning products were significantly more likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Shapiro added that, as this new review also notes, some studies have traced “potential links to fertility and infertility and birth defects” related to QAC exposure. To date, these relationships have mostly been observed in animal experiments.

Those at high risk of exposure to QACs include workers who manufacture cleaning products, and those in medical, domestic, or cleaning occupations, as well as school staff. The researchers also found that children may have higher exposure to QAC than the average adult, since children are more likely to put their hand in their mouth after touching an unfamiliar surface.

Another factor that worries experts is that these chemicals may be contributing to antimicrobial resistance, a problem that is causing our tools to fight bacteria to become weaker due to overuse. This new study cited a study in which after soil microbial communities were exposed to a specific QAC, it caused several antimicrobial genes to increase in strength and abundance.

“So in a way, they don’t help at all, and they teach the bacteria to be resistant to these particular chemicals,” Shapiro said.

The increase in use of QAC was already a problem before the pandemic, researchers say.

In the US, researchers theorized that this is because they often replace many active ingredients that were banned in hand and body washes by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2016.

They can also be found in all Canadian industries.

In accordance with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, in 2020 Canada released information on how many QACs were found in goods manufactured in Canada and imported in 2017. They obtained data on around 800 QACs from various industries, with the main industries being cosmetics and beauty supplies and perfumery; wholesalers of chemicals and related products; manufacture of toilet preparations; Manufacture of soaps and detergents; and wholesalers of toiletries, cosmetics, and sundries.

According to the data, there were more than 10 million kilograms of substances covered by QACs in laundry and dishwashing detergents in Canada alone in 2017.

In light of the worrying data on QACs, researchers recommend eliminating the use of QAC in products where it is unnecessary or whose effectiveness has not been proven, and that regulations on the disclosure of QAC in products be tightened.

“Drastic reductions in many uses of QACs will not spread COVID-19,” said Carol Kwiatkowski, co-author and researcher at the Green Science Policy Institute, in the press release. “In fact, it will make our homes, classrooms, offices and other shared spaces healthier.”

So how can you tell if your cleaning products contain QACs?

Shapiro said benzalkonium chloride is a common QAC in cleaning products for consumers to look out for, and labels may list other chemicals ending in “ammonium chloride” or something similar.

“You can recognize these because they (often) have the name ammonia,” she said.

Those who are concerned should know that not all cleaning products contain QACs.

“So there are options. First, remember soap and water? Soap and water is probably one of the best sanitizers we can use,” Shapiro said.

The study’s press release also included a list of safe cleaning products, which have been evaluated by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) with the University of Massachusetts Lowell, that consumers can turn to instead of products with QAC:


All Purpose Antibacterial Cleaner – Method Products Inc

Arm And Hammer Essentials – CR Brands Inc.

Comet Disinfectant Bathroom Cleaner – The Proctor & Gamble Company

Lysol® Bathroom Cleaner – Reckitt Benckiser LLC

Lysol® Neutra Air® 2 in 1 – Reckitt Benckiser LLC

Purell Professional Surface Sanitizer – GOJO Industries Inc

Kaboom – Church & Dwight Company Inc

Clorox Commercial Solutions® Clorox® Disinfectant Bio-Stain & Odor Remover – Clorox Professional Products Company

Lysol Multipurpose Cleaner – Reckitt Benckiser LLC

Clorox Pet Solutions Sanitizing Stain & Odor Remover Advanced Formula – The Clorox Company

Envirocleanse A – Envirocleanse LLC

Cleansmart – Simple Science Limited

Scrubbing Blows – SC Johnson & Son Inc

Windex Disinfectant Cleaner – SC Johnson & Son Inc

Force of Nature Activator Capsule – HCl Cleaning Products LLC

For the full list, including products for commercial, institutional, industrial, and residential use, visit the TURI website here.

TURI notes that products are included in the list based on whether their active ingredient is considered safer, and that they “do not endorse specific products or vendors.”


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