Women’s Health Organization Cautions Educators About Harmful Exposures to Toxic Chemicals in Disinfectants
As schools prepare to welcome back students, national NGO Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), cautions administrators about the health dangers linked to popular disinfectants, and offers solutions for safer, effective alternatives to help protect students and staff from COVID-19.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – Environmental health non-profit, Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), is raising concerns about the use of certain antibacterial chemicals commonly found in disinfecting products like wipes, sprays, and all-purpose cleaners. Registered as pesticides with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ammonium quaternary compounds — or “quats” — are linked to adverse health effects including asthma, dermatitis, reproductive harm, and the spread of antimicrobial resistance bacteria, often referred to as “super-bugs”.
“Keeping children safe and healthy at school is a top priority for educators, administrators, and — of course — parents and guardians, especially in the exceptional circumstances that we are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Maria Ignacia Miranda Santis, Program and Outreach Manager at WVE. “But while teachers prioritize the health of our students, many of the disinfecting products used at our schools do not — and instead can actually put children’s health at risk.”
Emerging science shows that exposure to quats is harming sperm quality, reducing fertility and resulting in birth defects in mice; how quats are impacting human reproductive health is still unknown.  In addition, links to respiratory conditions are of particular concern. For example, studies reveal quats as triggering new cases of work-related asthma (asthma caused by work) as well as cases of work-aggravated asthma. 
“While quats do kill germs on surfaces — they are pesticides after all — studies of quat use in households have never proven to actually reduce colds or flu in the people who live there,” said Alexandra Scranton, Director Science and Research at WVE. “Meanwhile, the health impacts linked to these chemicals is real and cause for alarm.”
SAFER & EFFECTIVE ALTERNATIVES
To help prevent the overuse and the misuse of disinfectants in schools, Women’s Voices for the Earth has released a toolkit for parents and guardians on how to talk to educators about safer alternatives. The toolkit includes a comprehensive list of EPA-certified safer disinfectants to combat COVID-19 that use active ingredients like hydrogen peroxide instead of toxic quats. But beyond disinfectants, the toolkit also highlights how to use these products safely, and stresses the importance and effectiveness of hand-washing for keeping kids healthy.
“There’s a reason the CDC prioritizes hand-washing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Studies repeatedly show that hand-washing and routine cleaning with simple soap and water is incredibly effective at reducing the spread of illness,” said Scranton.
The toolkit also highlights the problem that disinfectants are often used incorrectly. For example, 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. In addition, for disinfectants to be effective, surfaces also need to be free of grime and remain wet for the duration of the disinfectant’s wait-time (these can vary anywhere from 30 secs. to 10 mins.).
WVE is not the only organization concerned about quats. Authoritative bodies like The San Francisco Department of the Environment recommend using cleaning products in public spaces — including schools, parks and office buildings — that do not contain quats, calling specific attention to the chemicals’ connection to asthma, its toxicity to aquatic life, and potential links to reproductive harm. In addition, in places like Washington, the State Department of Health specifically warns teachers about using disinfectants with quats in the classrooms, noting children are particularly vulnerable to chemical exposures like asthma triggers.
“Asthma triggers like quats create additional burden on respiratory health,” said Scranton. “This is particularly concerning since studies continue to link poor respiratory health with increased risk of both contracting and being harmed by coronavirus. Safer products are not just important for children and teachers, they are a necessity for protecting the health of workers who are routinely exposed to these products on a daily basis.”
Antibacterial chemicals have also recently received scrutiny from the Food and Drug Association (FDA). In 2016, the FDA banned the chemical triclosan and 18 other less commonly used antibacterial chemicals from soaps used in a household setting. And in 2018, this ban was extended to hand soaps and sanitizers marketed specifically for use in healthcare settings. The FDA is currently reviewing two quats — benzalkonium chloride and benzethonium chloride — for not only safety, but for their effectiveness at actually reducing illness.
“In short, we can do and must do better, to protect the health and safety of our children, our educators and our school staff,” said Miranda Santis. “Fortunately, in this case, equally effective and much safer alternatives already exist and should be prioritized over quat-based products.”
Since 2007, Women’s Voices for the Earth has run a sustained campaign to promote ingredient safety and ingredient disclosure in the cleaning products industry, including their most recent report Health First: A Cleaning Products Industry Roadmap for Selecting Safer Chemicals and Inspiring Consumer Trust. WVE’s additional resources on disinfectants, cleaning products and COVID-19 can be found here.
For parents and guardians interested in getting more involved in taking on toxic quats in their communities, WVE also supports a national action group called, Parents Against Quats (PAQ).
About Women’s Voices for the Earth
Founded in 1995, Women’s Voices for the Earth is a national environmental health organization that works to amplify women’s voices to eliminate toxic chemicals that harm our health and communities. www.womensvoices.org
Beth Conway – Communications Director
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Alexandra Scranton – Director of Science and Research
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 Melin VE, Potineni H, Hunt P, Griswold J, Siems B, Werre SR, and Hrubec TC (2014) Exposure to common quaternary ammonium disinfectants decreases fertility in mice. Reproductive Toxicology; 50: 163–170. December 2014.
 Melin VE, Melin TE, Dessify BJ, Nguyen CT, Shea CS, and Hrubec TC (2016) Quaternary ammonium disinfectants cause subfertility in mice bytargeting both male and female reproductive processes. Reproductive Toxicology; 59: 159–166. December 2016.
 Jajosky, RA et. al. (1999) Surveillance of Work-Related Asthma in Selected U.S. States Using Surveillance Guidelines for State Health Departments – California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey, 1993-95. MMWR 1999:48 (No. SS-3) June 25, 1999.