A Danger Lurking In Pandemic Disinfectants? How “Quats” May Be Causing Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs And Other Health Concerns

Consumer Goods

The coronavirus pandemic has led to booming business for common disinfectant brand owners such as Clorox Brands; Reckitt & Colman, which makes Lysol, and the Pfizer Corporation, which not only has a COVID-19 vaccine approved by the FDA for emergency use authorization but also owns one of the leading brands of hand sanitizer: Purell. 

In fact, in the US, in comparison to spring 2019, sales of Lysol for the same period last year were up nearly 50 percent; aerosol disinfectant sales surged by approximately 50% in 2020. 

Despite the deadly threat of COVID, according to Environmental Health News (EHN), there’s a nefarious problem lurking in Lysol, Clorox, Purell and other common brands of sanitizers and disinfectants. 

Quats, or quaternary ammonium compounds, are charged molecules that can kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Despite their ability to kill pathogens, recent research has some scientists concerned about the possible health and environmental effects of quats. These side effects may include: 

  • Fertility issues
  • Birth defects
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Occupational asthma
  • Toxicity to marine animals 

Although these potential effects of the ammonia compounds are concerning, perhaps most troubling of all is the potential that these cleaners may give rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Bacteria And Viruses Are Getting Smarter

If the SARS-COv-2 virus acts like a spike in order to penetrate a host’s cells, quats, the chemicals in common household disinfectants work like spears to penetrate the shell on the outside of a bacteria or virus. 

However, certain bacterial strains seem to better be able to resist quats. Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta are experimenting with new antimicrobial ingredients and recently patented their own quats that can mount multiple attacks on a single microbe. These quats are likely even more effective antiseptics than current quats on the market, but the new chemicals haven’t yet been tested for safety, so it’s not clear how their health or environmental impacts might differ, or not, from current quats.

Birth Defects And Infertility

Several studies link quats to health problems in mice, from birth defects to decreases in fertility. For each of the studies, mice were fed a mixture of two common quat disinfectants at high doses for several weeks before being examined for either fetal birth defects or signs of decreased fertility.

Mice that were exposed to quats were more likely to develop neural tube defects, an early-stage birth defect. And doses of quats decreased the number and size of litters born as well.

Inflammation & Asthma

Japanese researchers found in 2010 that mice exposed to quats at high concentrations by inhalation saw cell death and increased levels of inflammation, which may trigger asthma. 

In preliminary human studies that have not yet been reviewed in a peer-reviewed journal, quat levels in the blood were associated with higher levels of inflammation and decreased mitochondrial function. 

Some States Taking Notice of Quats

State officials in Massachusetts are examining the potential long-term consequences of quats. Because of the pandemic and the ensuing boost in disinfectant use, officials here are more closely examining the controversial chemicals. 

“That’s why we finally decided to take up [quats], because people are using it constantly to try to keep themselves and their workers and customers safe,” Liz Harriman, Deputy Director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) in Massachusetts, told EHN. 

Environmental regulators from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment are also taking a closer look at quats. 

Natural Alternatives To Cleaners With Quats

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends using natural cleaning products that contain citric acid, lactic acid, or hydrogen peroxide as their main ingredients. EWG publishes a guide to safe household cleaners.


The American Cleaning Institute, a trade organization that represents manufacturers such as Clorox Brands and Pfizer, insists that disinfectants are safe. Indeed, no conclusive studies have tied quats to harmful health outcomes in humans.  However, perhaps the safer and more cautious approach would be using natural disinfectants and cleaners. In addition to quats, many other chemicals in common everyday household products have been associated with health risks such as cancer.

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