Disinfectant household cleaners could damage fertility

16 November, 2015

It’s getting harder and harder to keep a truly clean home – and this, it seems, has less to do with our cleaning habits and more to do with the chemicals in our cleaning products.

A new study has shown that common ingredients in household bathroom and kitchen cleaning sprays – and other products – could have unforeseen effects on our fertility.

Recently a research team from Virginia Tech University looked at two common quaternary ammonium compounds – alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC) and didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride (DDAC) – used as disinfectants in popular US brands such as Lysol, Clorox and Simple Green (these ingredients are also used widely in disinfectants in other countries).

The study used an animal model and found that that when mice were exposed via their drinking water to the chemicals the fertility of both males and females was affected.

What you need to know

» Quaternary ammonium compounds re used widely in household cleaners, but also in cosmetics and as water treatments and in pesticide formulations

» In animals exposed to these compounds via their drinking water, US researchers noted reduced fertility in both the males and the females

» These ubiquitous chemicals could have the same effect in humans, but say researchers our day-to-day exposure is not being monitored nor is research begin done to show how they affect our bodies.

Specifically male mice had fewer and weaker sperm and the female mice experienced decreased ovulation and spent less time in “heat” (when they’re most fertile).

In a report last year, Terry Hrubec, senior author of the current study and associate professor of anatomy and embryology at Virginia Tech University, found that mice exposed to these compounds took longer to get pregnant, had fewer pregnancies and gave birth to smaller litters.

The current work supports this conclusion.

Presumed safe

Industry representatives have argued that these chemicals would not be used in household product if they had not been deemed safe by federal authorities. They further suggest that the results, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, are inconclusive and that mice were exposed to unrealistically high levels.

Hrubec acknowledges that some of the mice were dosed at very high levels, but notes also that male mice given low doses still had reproductive problems, she said.

In addition, some male mice weren’t dosed at all but rather lived in a cage and room where the compounds were used to clean cages and floors and still had impacted sperm, she said.

Multiple exposures

This is an important point. Even if you don’t use these types of cleaning products, you might be at risk of exposure from other sources. Quaternary ammonium compounds are ubiquitous chemicals with multiple functions in a product formulations. They are, for instance, used as disinfectants, surfactants, fabric softeners, antistatic agents, and wood preservation.

This means they are widely used, for example, as algae-killing swimming pool chemicals, lumber treatments, laundry products and some cosmetics, where they are used as preservatives as well as skin and hair conditioners in a wide variety of products, including hair conditioners, moisturisers, body washes, bubble bath, liquid hand soap, shaving cream, styling gel/cream, styling mousse, makeup, antiperspirants and deodorants, baby wipes and sunscreens.

They are also used in pesticide formulations to drive the active ingredient deeper into plants (including food and feed crops genetically engineered to withstand repeated sprayings) and make it more effective at killing weeds. Roundup, the active ingredient of which is glyphosate) is a good example of this. Recent studies have shown that the ‘inactive’ ingredients in pesticide formulas can make them many times more toxic.

No one is looking – so you should

For humans exposure to quaternary ammonium compounds may make other chemicals that we are exposed to more toxic.

A healthy hormone system is vital for healthy fertility and when researchers see effects in animal models it is an indication that there may be similar effects in humans.

Chemical exposures may be one explanation for the rise in infertility in both men and women which we are seeing across the developed world. In spite of this nobody is monitoring our day-to-day exposure and there is relatively little human research being done to understand such environmental influences on human reproduction.

Household cleaners, as we have reported, rarely list their ingredients on the label, but in cosmetics you should look out for any ingredient that says ‘quaternium’ followed by a number, (16, 18, 26 etc) as well as the following ingredients:

  • Benzalkonium chloride
  • Cetalkonium chloride
  • Cetrimonium chloride
  • Dialkyl dimethyl ammonium methyl sulfate
  • Diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride
  • DTDMAC (ditallow dimethyl ammonium chloride)
  • Hydroxethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate
  • Lauryl dimonium hydrolysed collagen
  • Stearalkonium chloride


See also our article A cleaner, greener home – without chemicals!