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Should you cut back the use of household disinfectants?

There has been a rise in usage of household disinfectants, but could those products be causing more harm than good?
Person uses cleaning wipe on door handle.
Posted at 2:08 PM, May 16, 2023

New research released earlier this month highlights concerns about the rise in use of household disinfectants. 

More than two dozen scientists released their findings in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The researchers noted the use of quaternary ammonium compounds, which are commonly used in household cleaners. 

According to Oregon State University, quaternary ammonium compounds "kill germs including bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that could make us sick. They work by breaking open the membranes of bacteria and outer coatings of viruses."

But these very same chemicals meant to keep you healthy can cause health problems, including asthma, dermatitis and inflammation, the researchers cautioned. They said these chemicals can also make certain bacteria species resistant to both quaternary ammonium compounds and antibiotics. 

"It’s ironic that the chemicals we’re deploying in vain for one health crisis are actually fueling another," said Erica Hartmann, a co-author and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. "Antimicrobial resistance was already contributing to millions of deaths per year before the pandemic. Overzealous disinfection, especially with products containing QACs, threaten to make it worse."

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The researchers said that since the pandemic, the use of cleaners such as wipes, hand sanitizers, sprays and foggers has increased. They noted that levels of quaternary ammonium compounds in people and the environment have increased. 

They say this is especially worrisome for those who frequently use these chemicals, such as doctors, nurses, janitors and teachers.

The researchers aren’t encouraging them to be avoided entirely, rather to avoid using them unnecessarily. They say there is no benefit to using these chemicals over soap and water. 

"Drastically reducing many uses of QACs won’t spread COVID-19," Carol Kwiatkowski, a co-author and scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute, said in a press release. "In fact, it will make our homes, classrooms, offices and other shared spaces healthier."

The Consumer Product Information Database has info on which exact household products contain these chemicals.