Although we’ve known for a while that many common household products can make us sick, it can be hard to switch up longstanding cleaning routines. But if you’re looking for another reason to ditch some of those chemical-heavy products, a new study suggests that the use of two compounds in particular could result in birth defects.
Research out of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech found a connection between two chemicals used in products containing disinfectants and preservatives and neural tube birth defects in both mice and rats — the kind that results in spina bifida and anencephaly in humans.
The chemicals, known as quaternary ammonium compounds — or “quats” — are found in products we use every day, like cleaners, laundry detergent, fabric softener, shampoo, conditioner and eye drops.
"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. "Most people are exposed on a regular basis."
Hrubec and her team found that the birth defects occur when both males and females — or just one parent — were exposed to the chemicals. This is significant, Hrubec said, because the fact that birth defects were seen when only the father was exposed to the chemicals means that we need to rethink our concept of prenatal care to include fathers.
And it gets worse. The research found that the mice and rats didn’t even need to come in physical contact with the chemicals to see the dangerous consequences. Just being in the same room as the quat-based cleaners was enough to cause birth defects. Hrubec and her team also observed increased birth defects in rodents for two generations after stopping exposure to the chemical compounds.
But so far, only mice and rats have been involved in the clinical trials. What does this mean for humans?
"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."
Quats were first introduced in the 1950s — before the standardization of toxicity studies. Although some chemical companies claim to have conducted their own tests, none were ever published. Today, these compounds are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
For more information and consumer guides to common products that could pose a danger to your health, visit the Environmental Working Group website.