Two chemicals in a class of compounds commonly added to household cleaning and disinfectant products have been determined to cause reproductive damage in laboratory animals, according to a new study. Researchers from Virginia Tech found that mice handled by laboratory workers who used cleaning products containing the chemicals had trouble getting pregnant, and many of them died.
Dr. Terry Hrubec, a research assistant professor at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, along with her colleagues, made the discovery after investigating why the reproductive performance of mice in their labs was declining, seemingly for no reason. It was at some point later that Dr. Hrubec observed lab workers handling the affected mice after washing their hands with a disinfectant solution, prompting further investigation.
Sure enough, two chemicals used in the solution — alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC) [also known as benzalkonium chloride] and didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride (DDAC) — were found to cause reproductive damage, belonging to a larger class of chemical known as quaternary ammonium compounds that scientists say have never been adequately safety tested on humans.
“It is likely that you have these chemicals in your house,” stated Dr. Hrubec, noting that ADBAC and DDAC are added to household cleaning products because they bear antimicrobial and antistatic properties. “The answer to the question, ‘Are these chemicals harmful to humans?’ is that we simply don’t know.”
Many household chemicals in use for decades have never been safety tested
What we do know, however, is that ADBAC and DDAC have never been safety tested on humans, despite their approved use that dates back to as early as the 1950s. Back then, chemical manufacturers did all the safety testing on their own products, and none of this research was vetted for accuracy. It was later, in the 1980s, that guidelines for more honest research on chemicals were established, but these rules did not apply to older chemicals.
“These industry-sponsored studies took place before toxicity studies were standardized,” explained Dr. Hrubec. “In the 1980s, toxicity researchers developed and implemented Good Laboratory Practices, or GLPs. These are guidelines and rules for conducting research so that it is reproducible and reliable. All of the research on these chemicals happened before that.”
As far as how ADBAC and DDAC appear to affect mammals, Dr. Hrubec observed that female mice exposed to them took much longer to get pregnant and had fewer offspring when they finally did. And a shocking 40 percent of those exposed to the chemicals died during late pregnancy or during delivery, which seems to have human implications.
“If these chemicals are toxic to humans, they could also be contributing to the decline in human fertility seen in recent decades, as well as the increased need for assistive reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization,” she said.
Avoid toxic disinfectant products that contain quaternary ammonium compounds
Though Dr. Hrubec says more research is needed to confirm her findings, consumers should take note of them and seek safer alternatives. It is better to avoid potential toxins by applying the precautionary approach than to wait around for science to catch up with reality, potentially exposing your family to irreversible health damage as a result of chemical exposure.
The researchers also noted that these and other chemicals in combination with one another could be even more toxic than they are individually. Stressing the importance of more wide-scale testing, the team noted that “mixture toxicity” deserves considerably more attention from regulators in the interest of public safety.
Sources for this article include:
- Chemical reaction between pipe alloy and water disinfectants produce cancer-causing chromium in drinking water
- Could spraying children with disinfectant be the new normal?
- Protect your home from coronavirus and other pathogens by making home-made disinfectants
- Researchers evaluate the efficiency of natural plant products for disinfecting surfaces