How To Avoid Quats For Safer DisinfectingYou may not have heard about quats, but you’ve definitely come into contact with them. Quats are incredibly common and are included in all kinds of disinfectants, detergents, personal care products like shampoo, and even dryer sheets. Here’s what you need to know about these scary toxins.
What Are Quats?Quats are a class of compounds that are effective at killing microbes by attaching to the negatively-charged surfaces of bacteria and viruses, so they’re commonly found in disinfectant products. In fact, over half of the disinfectants on the EPA’s List N (the approved products for use against SARS-CoV-2) contain quats! Quats have been used in consumer products for decades, but, in recent years, scientists have started to question whether we know enough about these compounds and identified risks that come as a result of exposure to them.
What’s So Bad About Quats?Quats can disrupt key cellular processes and have been linked to a broad range of health issues including reproductive and developmental problems in animals. In one laboratory where studies were completed on mice, the staff switched from a chlorine-based disinfectant to quats, which resulted in fertility issues and neural tube defects in the mice. Labs have found quats are resilient on surfaces and it can take months to get rid of the quats residue, so it’s critical not to use quats on food-preparation surfaces. Quats are associated with a broad range of health issues including skin and respiratory irritation and exacerbating allergy and asthma symptoms. Children are at particular risk of developing complications due to exposure to harmful chemicals like quats, due to their rapid development. Asthma and allergies have been linked by researchers to chemical exposures, which contribute to as much as 5% of childhood cancer and 30% of childhood asthma. In 2020, concerned about the impact these compounds could have on children due to the increased use of disinfectant products during the pandemic, The California Department of Public Health issued COVID-19 guidance for schools, specifically guiding schools to avoid the use of disinfectant products that contain asthma-causing chemicals, including quats. In a statement to C&EN, the Department says, “We proactively recommend the use of disinfectants that do not contain [quats] or other harmful chemicals, whenever possible.” The FDA recently considered banning two kinds of quats from consumer products like hand and body washes: benzalkonium chloride and benzethonium chloride due to lack of available safety data, but ultimately deferred their decision while manufacturers develop safety studies. Some of the health risks associated with quats exposure are:
- Respiratory conditions and decreased lung function
- Occupational asthma
- Greater immune reaction to allergens
- Worsening asthma symptoms
- Decreased fertility in mice
- Neural tube defects in mice
- Quat resistance in livestock contributing to antimicrobial resistance
How Can You Avoid Quats?Because quats are so common and, at times, the sole active ingredient in a disinfectant, it can be difficult to avoid them. To avoid quats, look out for these ingredients on product labels:
- Ingredient names that end in “ammonium chloride” such as:
- Benzalkonium chloride
- Benzethonium chloride
- 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)
- Didecyldimethylammonium chloride
- Dioctyldimethylammonium chloride
- Benzalkonium chlorides
- Products that are labeled “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” most likely contain quats.