Since the pandemic’s outset, the global use of disinfectants has gone through the roof. Clorox dramatically boosted production of its wipe packs to 1.5m a day by mid-2021, and an industry trade group said 83% of consumers surveyed around the same time reported they had used a disinfectant wipe in the last week.
But as schools reopened, a group of toxic chemical researchers grew concerned as they heard reports of kids regularly using disinfectant wipes on their classroom desks, or teachers running disinfectant foggers.
The researchers knew the disinfectants did little to protect consumers from Covid, and were instead exposing kids at alarming levels to what they say are a dangerous chemical group – quaternary ammonium compounds, also known as QACs, or “quats”.
Quats are common components in popular disinfectant wipes and sprays, especially those that claim to “kill 99.9% of germs”. But in a new peer-reviewed paper, the researchers assembled the conclusions from a fast-growing body of quat studies that point to several main issues: the chemicals are linked to serious health problems, they contribute to antimicrobial resistance, they pollute the environment and they are not particularly effective.
The chemicals “might not be efficacious, but also might be harmful”, said Courtney Carignan, a co-author on the paper and toxicologist at Michigan State University.
“We did the review to answer the question of ‘What do we really know?’ and what was most surprising was there was a lack of health hazard data in the majority of QACs, and the few that have been studied have red flags,” Carignan added.
The paper – developed by a group of toxics researchers from academia, government agencies and non-governmental organizations – highlights quats’ risks and calls on regulators to eliminate the chemicals for non-essential uses.
QACs are a class of hundreds of chemicals also used in paints, pesticides, hand sanitizers, personal care products and more. Among other health issues, recent research has linked them to infertility, birth defects, metabolic disruption, asthma, skin disorders and other diseases.
The main exposure is through disinfectants, and most Americans are thought to have some level of the chemicals in their blood. Recent research that checked the serum of more than 200 Indiana residents before and after the pandemic started found quat levels roughly doubled, and while about 83% had detectable levels before the pandemic, 97% did after.
Humans can end up with quats in their bodies through several routes. The chemicals can be dermally absorbed or orally ingested after one touches a disinfectant wipe, or when they stick around on surfaces after the use of disinfectants. Inhalation is also a risk, especially with spray disinfectants, and the chemicals are also known to attach to dust and go airborne.
Among the groups most at risk are small children because the wipes are so frequently used in daycares or schools, elderly folks in supervised care, healthcare workers, cleaning professionals and others who frequently use disinfectants.
The chemicals are persistent and thought to be bioaccumulative, meaning they accumulate in human bodies and the environment. Quats have been found to be toxic to fish and “a substantial body of evidence” suggests they probably contribute to the creation of superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant pathogens, the paper states.
It also calls into question quats’ efficacy. Disinfection with quats often has only a small benefit over plain soap and water when it comes to killing germs, research suggests, and neither is thought to be needed to stop the transmission of Covid, which happens through the air.
“Disinfectant will get rid of more germs, but there’s a question of ‘How much more?’” Carignan said.
Still, companies continue to use quats and consumers buy the disinfectants in high volume, which Carignan said may be a “a market demand situation where maybe there’s some confusion about when you need to disinfect versus when you just need a cleaner.”
Soap and water is safest for general cleaning purposes, she added, and some resources offer alternatives to harsh cleaners. Disinfectants should generally be reserved for when someone has the stomach flu or other illnesses for which disinfectants are effective, and even then they should “not be used in a cavalier way”, Carignan said.
The paper stresses the need for regulatory agencies to protect consumers. Labeling requirements are inconsistent among product classes – they must be included on pesticide labels, they do not need to be included on paint labels, and they appear to only be sometimes listed on disinfectant labels, Carignan said.
The paper calls on regulatory agencies to provide more clarity around the chemicals, including more research on quats’ health effects, better labeling and elimination of non-essential uses.
“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 states.