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Are germ-killing chemicals in common household products weakening fertility?

Scientists say chemicals in common household products could be making us infertile. Hand wipes, disinfectants, and even some mouthwash brands all contain chemicals known as quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) used to destroy microorganisms, aka germs.

Concurrently, fertility issues worldwide are on the rise and a huge factor is our environmental health. While much of the 50% decrease in the number of children born per woman in the past 60 years is due to choice, an increasing number of couples (now 1 in 7 to 10 in North America) are have difficulty conceiving. A significant cause of this progressive loss of fertility is the increasing body load of environmental toxins in both men and women.

Hormones, particularly testosterone and estrogen, are what make reproductive-function possible. Our hormones are increasingly being bombarded by harmful, endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are commonplace in our homes, foods, and lifestyles. Dr. Gino Cortopassi, the co-author of a study on the chemicals from the University of California, Davis, said: ‘It is concerning that these everyday household products contain these chemicals, which at a certain concentration have been shown to disrupt fertility in mice and which we have found in cells disrupts the estrogen-signaling process so important for human fertility.” 

Virginia Tech researchers who were using a disinfectant when handling mice discovered that two active ingredients in it cause declines in mouse reproduction. 

A study by Virginia Tech found that common household cleaners impact sperm production and ovulation in mice and suggest the same could weaken fertility in humans. Researchers who were using a disinfectant when handling mice found that two active ingredients in the disinfectant: alkyl dimethyl benzalkonium chloride (ADBAC) and didecyl dimethylammonium chloride (DDAC), caused declines in mouse reproduction. These same ingredients are found in commercial and household cleaners and disinfectants – including popular brands like Lysol, Clorox, and Simple Green—hand sanitizers, antibacterial wipes, preservatives in cosmetics, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets. 

Alkyl dimethyl benzalkonium chloride (ADBAC) and didecyl dimethylammonium chloride (DDAC) are part of a larger class of chemicals called quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats,” used for their antimicrobial properties as well as their ability to lower the surface tension between two liquids or a liquid and a solid. It is likely that you have these chemicals in your house,” said Dr. Terry Hrubec, a research assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.  

According to the Virginia Tech study, female mice took longer to get pregnant and had fewer offspring when they did. In addition, 40% of the pregnant mice exposed to ADBAC and DDAC died in late pregnancy or during delivery. “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,” one researcher said.

Quaternary ammonium compounds like the ones used for the disinfectant in Hrubec’s lab were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. Although some toxicity testing took place during this period, it was conducted by chemical manufacturers and not published. “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” said Hrubec. 

“Quats” are very effective at keeping houses, hospitals, restaurants, and other industries free of microbes and other contamination and are widely used. However, considering the widespread human exposure to the compounds through cleaning products and disinfectants, more research is needed to verify the implications on humans.

“When we see effects in mice we should be concerned about effects in humans,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in reproductive health and the environment. A growing body of evidence suggests that environmental chemicals are playing a role. 

In a second study on fertility, Hrubec compared un-dosed male mice living in the facility disinfected with quats with those living in the quat-free facility (Reprod. Toxicol. 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2015.10.006). This experiment mimics the kind of everyday exposure people might experience if they are in buildings cleaned with quat-containing products, Hrubec says. Male mice living in the quat-using building had about a 25% lower sperm count and 10% lower sperm motility, according to the study.

Now, with the pandemic gripping the world, researchers are concerned not only about  SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but also the disinfectants used to destroy it on surfaces.

Hospital workers, janitors, public transit operators, and homeowners have been disinfecting and sanitizing surfaces to protect against the virus. Half of the disinfectants the US Environmental Protection Agency recommends – List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19) – to be effective against SARS-CoV-2 contain a quat, often as the sole active ingredient. 

Quats work against viruses by stripping them of their lipid envelope, leaving them unable to penetrate cells. Most disinfectants of this type need about 10 minutes of dwell time to fully disinfect hard surfaces. Quats are used in thousands of consumer products across the world. They entered the market in the early 20th century before the EPA began regulating the manufacture and sale of potentially harmful chemicals under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

As a result, quats counted as existing chemicals on the market that could continue being included in consumer products without being evaluated for safety.  Among workers like janitors or nurses who routinely handle concentrated disinfectant solutions, the occupational health risks associated with using quats are well established, including dermal irritation, skin sensitization, and occupational asthma. The EPA is currently updating risk assessments for quats, which will be released publicly sometime this year (2021). 

For Hrubec and other fertility researchers, COVID presents a unique opportunity to study any pre-and post-pandemic effects on quat levels and look for any associated impacts on infertility. “Right now, we can’t monitor anything,” Hrubec says. “But we do plan to start as soon as we’re given the big green light to go ahead.”

The takeaway:  As always, make sure to only use cleaners as directed. Read and follow the label directions for safe and effective use. Only use cleaners on objects or surfaces they are intended for. Never mix cleaning products together and only use one cleaner at a time. Bleach, ammonia, and other hard-surface cleaners can irritate your skin, eyes, and throat. Use gloves when cleaning and make sure the area you are cleaning in has adequate ventilation. 

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