Another Group of Chemicals in Household Cleaners Is Alarming Scientists

Recent studies show worrying results

Bubbles on a wall
Forever chemicals aren't the only thing to worry about when you're cleaning your home.
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Can the very things you’re using to clean up your house have adverse effects on your health? As the discussion of PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” becomes more widespread, so too are scientists learning about other types of chemicals that are also found in everyday products and could pose a health risk to people opposed to them. These are known as “quats” — not to be confused with a certain Total Recall character — and they may well prompt a longer look at the labels of your household cleaners.

As The Washington Post‘s Teddy Amenabar explained, “quats” is a nickname for quaternary ammonium compounds. It’s not news that some household cleaners contain ammonia — but the effects of “quats” on the human body are both unsettling and wide-ranging. (Some scientists prefer the term QACs.)

The Post cites studies linking exposure to “quats” to pulmonary disease, asthma and the killing of brain cells. The last of these is a relatively new finding, which emerged from a recent study published in Nature. The lead author of the study in question, Paul Tesar, was cautious in how he explained his findings. “We’re not looking to say that there’s a direct correlation between exposure and human neurodevelopmental issues,” Tesar told the Post. “We don’t have that data yet.”

Instead, Tesar emphasized that certain brain cells “have a specific vulnerability to these chemicals.”

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A study published last year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology made a compelling case for more research into and regulation of the chemical class. The authors wrote that the “Environmental Protection Agency’s current method of grouping QACs based on structure, first proposed in 1988, is insufficient to address the wide range of QAC chemistries, potential toxicities, and exposure scenarios.”

Much like forever chemicals, “quats” can be found in a wide range of products. The 2023 paper noted that “quats” can be found in “cleaning products, hand sanitizers, personal care products, many kinds of wipes (surface, baby, hand, and disinfecting wipes), and various pesticidal products.” As classes of chemicals go, this seems like one that we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the coming years.

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