A new study at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech has found that the chemicals known as quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats,” which are often used as disinfectants and preservatives in household and personal products such as cleaners, laundry detergent, fabric softener, shampoo and conditioner, and eye drops, can lead to birth defects of the brain and spinal cord.
“These chemicals are regularly used in the home, hospital, public spaces, and swimming pools,” said Terry Hrubec, associate professor of anatomy at the VCOM-Virginia campus and research assistant professor in the veterinary college’s Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in a news release. “Most people are exposed on a regular basis.”
For the study, the team investigated the effect of two commonly used quats: alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride and didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride – in mouse and rats. Often listed on ingredient lists as ADBAC and DDAC, these quats are valued for their antimicrobial and antistatic properties, as well as their ability to lower surface tension. They found that exposure to these chemicals resulted in neural tube birth defects — the same birth defect as spina bifida and anencephaly in humans.
“Birth defects were seen when both males and females were exposed, as well as when only one parent was exposed,” said Hrubec, “The fact that birth defects could be seen when only the father was exposed means that we need to expand our scope of prenatal care to include the father.”
Researchers also found that mice and rats did not even need to be dosed with the chemicals to see the effect. Simply using quat-based cleaners in the same room as the mice was enough to cause birth defects. They also observed increased birth defects in rodents for two generations after stopping exposure. Although the study was conducted on mice and rats, researchers said the chemicals may be toxic to humans as well.
“We are asked all of the time, ‘You see your results in mice. How do you know that it’s toxic in humans?'” Hrubec said. “Our research on mice and rats shows that these chemicals affect the embryonic development of these animals. Since rodent research is the gold standard in the biomedical sciences, this raises a big red flag that these chemicals may be toxic to humans as well.”