The Problem with Quats
Ammonium quaternary compounds “quats” are active ingredients found in such products as disinfectant sprays, all-purpose antibacterial cleaners and disinfectant cleaning wipes. Quats are officially registered as pesticides with the EPA.
- Quats are potent skin irritants and can cause rashes and dermatitis.
- Quats can irritate your lungs leading to breathing problems.
- Cleaning workers exposed regularly to quats have developed occupational asthma.
- Quats are linked to reproductive harm, potentially affecting fertility, and possibly leading to birth defects.
- Widespread use of quats is contributing to the global problem of antimicrobial resistance, leading to the development of “superbugs” that cannot be controlled with antibiotics.
- Despite popular belief, use of potent antibacterial cleaners in the home has never actually been proven to reduce colds or flu in the people that live there.
Products with quats are also often misused. For example, although the label of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes advises users to wash hands after use, keep out of reach of children, and in some cases, rinse affected surfaces with water after use, these products are rarely treated with such precautions.
In addition, quats will linger on a surface long after you have cleaned with them. This means that your exposure (and your kids’ exposure, and your pet’s exposure) continues every time you touch that countertop, kitchen floor, highchair, desktop, etc.
In most cases, quats are overkill for your everyday household cleaning needs. We know from lab testing that quats do effectively kill many kinds of microbes like E. Coli and Staph. Aureus – but there are serious potential side effects that comes along with that power. It’s like killing a housefly with a sledgehammer – there is no question the sledgehammer will be very effective (with a direct hit) but the side effects (the gaping holes in your wall) are pretty unpleasant, not to mention unnecessary. Because while quats do kill germs on surfaces, studies of quat use in households have never been able to show that it makes you or your family any healthier than if you used soap and water. Meanwhile the harm chemicals like quats are doing to our health and the environment is real.
A Public Problem
Avoiding quats in public spaces can be challenging. Cleaning products containing quats are commonly found in janitorial supply stores, and disinfecting wipes or sprays containing quats are frequently used in schools, gyms, grocery stores and more. But you can make a difference:
- Take ACTION to tell Clorox to #QuitQuats!!
- Write letters to your school, gym, office, etc., to raise awareness about quats. Click here for sample letters to schools and/or gyms.
- PRINT and SHARE this fact sheet on quats
Avoiding Quats at Home
The advantage is that you can easily avoid quats in the products you use at home. Look for cleaning products that do NOT advertise as “antibacterial”. Or if they do – check the front label which is required to list the “active ingredients”. Commonly found quats in household products usually include “…onium chloride” in their names. Examples of commonly found quats are:
- Benzalkonium chloride
- Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (C14 60%, C16 30%, C12 5%, C18 5%)
- Alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride (C12-14)
- Didecyldimethylammonium chloride
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)
- 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
READ and SHARE BLOGS
- Quats and Back-To-School: What You Need to Know
- What Are Quats and Why Are They a Problem?
- Quats in Public Spaces: Are you being exposed and what to do about it