UPDATE (10.12.2020): As cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. continue to rise, there is absolutely no doubt we need to be diligent as a nation — as a world — to stop the spread of this virus in its tracks. There are many important and vital conversations around keeping our homes and communities safe — about how-to and when-to reopen safely — and part of this discussion needs to include toxic chemicals, particularly in regards to the overuse and misuse of disinfectants. Now, more than ever, we are being exposed to disinfectants in public spaces, many of which contain toxic chemicals like quats — with little data available showing that disinfecting is successfully preventing the spread of COVID. Read more.
Director of Science and Research
For additional resources, sample letters to public spaces/schools, fact sheets, and actions to help eliminate quats from products and public spaces once and for all, CLICK HERE!
We generally have control over the cleaning products we use in our own homes, but what about the products that get used in the public spaces we visit? Are you being exposed to quats in public spaces?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably YES.
What are quats?
Ammonium quaternary compounds (“quats”) are potent disinfectant chemicals commonly found in antibacterial cleaning products. Quats are registered as pesticides with the EPA, meaning you will find them listed as “active ingredients” on the front label of disinfectant products.
And the problem is – that they are strong enough to cause adverse health effects in people who are exposed to them. Quats are powerful irritants. Skin exposure to quats can lead to dermatitis (skin rashes), and exposure through breathing can irritate the lungs sometimes resulting in asthma. Recent research also points to concerns about quat exposure on reproductive health. Studies in mice indicate that quat exposure, even at low levels, decreased fertility, lowered sperm counts and increased rates of birth defects.
Why quats might get used in public spaces
Cleaning products containing quats are commonly found in janitorial supply stores. These products are marketed both as great cleaners with the extra “advantage” of being potent germ killers. Unfortunately, there are building managers who have been persuaded by marketing tactics and believe that maintaining germ-free spaces will keep the occupants healthier than if they were simply well-cleaned of dust and dirt. And except perhaps for hospital operating rooms, where disinfection is clearly key, this germ-free theory has never actually been shown to make building occupants any healthier. There are numerous studies, however, particularly of the cleaning workers using these products, whose health has been harmed through the exposure.
Examples of public locations where quats can be found:
What can you do about it?
Use your voice:
You can raise awareness about the potential harms of quats (and their unnecessary use) by talking to building managers, store owners, or school principals who make decisions about the cleaning products that get used. Tell them you are concerned both for your own health and the health of the cleaning staff. Talk with other people you know who also share those public spaces and ask them to talk with the building decision makers as well.
Share helpful information and factsheets about the toxicity of quats:
Here are some great ones:
- WVE Fact Sheet on Dangers of Quats with Citations to Scientific Studies
- Avoiding Quats and Finding Safer Alternatives
- Quaternary Ammonium Compounds in Cleaning Products: Health & Safety Information for Cleaners and Supervisors
- Disinfectants and Work-related Asthma: Information for Employers
- Information from WA State Department of Health on cleaning products in schools
- PRINT and SHARE this flyer on quats in public spaces. Black and white copy.
Sample letters on quat exposure to public places:
Offer information about alternative cleaning products:
Giving up the use of cleaners with quats doesn’t mean having dirtier spaces. There are numerous effective, inexpensive and commonly used non-antibacterial cleaners which can make places spotless. If you choose to use a disinfectant for a specific need – look for safer cleaners that do not contain quats, including those with active ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, lactic acid or thymol. Or consider simply using vinegar, or non-disinfectant wipes (like baby wipes) which are equally convenient for cleaning up small messes, and wiping off surfaces quickly.
Here are links to finding safer institutional cleaning products:
- U.S. EPA Safer Choice
- U.S EPA Design for the Environment Safer Disinfectants
- SF Approved (City of San Francisco)
- Safer Products and Practices for Disinfecting Surfaces (SF Environment)
Skip any offered DIY cleaning opportunities:
Gyms frequently offer spray bottles or wipes for their members to use to clean off machines before use. The products specifically marketed to gyms very frequently contain quats. Instead bring safer (non-antibacterial) wipes from home, or just use a dry towel to eliminate any sweat from a previous user. Grocery stores also commonly offer wipes to clean off cart handles, despite not a shred of evidence that anyone has ever been infected from a grocery cart. Skip these unnecessary exposures too. In schools, insist that antibacterial cleaning products (like disinfectant wipes) are never available to be used by children in a classroom. Alternatives (like simple soap and water) can be safely used by children instead.
Wash your hands frequently:
If you are concerned about the spread of infectious disease from a public space – take matters into your own hands – literally! While surface disinfecting practices have never been proven to keep people healthy, there is overwhelming evidence of the usefulness of frequent handwashing to protect your health and prevent the spread of disease.
Join PAQ (People Against Quats) today!
People Against Quats (PAQ) is a national action group of concerned people who want to take action to eliminate or reduce public exposure to quats in places like schools, childcare facilities, gyms, apartment buildings, public work places and more. PAQ members are from around the country, who are working locally to make change in their communities. Learn more.
LOOKING FOR MORE?
For helpful resources, sample letters to public spaces/schools, fact sheets, and actions to help eliminate quats from products once and for all, CLICK HERE!
Thanks for your help in sharing this information! Together we can make public spaces safer (and cleaner!) for all who enter them.