Can cleaning chemicals affect brain cells?

New research published in an American science journal says chemicals commonly found in cleaning products could harm brain tissue.

Concern has been raised around the effects of repeated exposure to quaternary ammonium compounds (commonly known as quats), chemicals found in a range of consumer products including cosmetics, cleaning products and disinfectants. Quats have been shown to be potentially toxic to oligodendrocytes, a type of brain cell that provides fatty insulation around nerves, allowing signals to move more quickly through the brain. 

Scientists at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have released a study that suggests exposure to quats could trigger disease in certain populations that are already genetically susceptible. 

This study is the latest in a series to label the chemicals as an area of emerging concern. This concern has been heightened following the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw governments, including the Australian government, recommending that disinfectants containing quats were most effective in killing the virus.

The known and suspected consequences of exposure to quats include dermal and respiratory effects, developmental and reproductive toxicity, disruption of metabolic function such as lipid homeostasis, and impairment of mitochondrial function. There has also been evidence of quats leading to antimicrobial resistance — resulting in superbugs that pose a serious threat to human health — also has been demonstrated, according to American Chemical Society research.

Studies conducted before and after the onset of the pandemic indicate increased human exposure to quats. For example, a 2021 report found that 80% of 43 participants had quats in their blood.

Quats actually include a large number of individual compounds with individual properties, with varying qualities, and not all of these compounds have been linked with health concerns. The sheer number of different compounds means a long slog for researchers in trying to identify possible concerns. 

As reported by the Washington Post, many experts agree that more research is needed to study the effect of quats on the human body and overall environment.  In Australia, quats are regulated for public health and safety by the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme (AICIS) and the Federal Health Department.

ISSA senior director Dr. Gavin Macgregor-Skinner says human exposure to chemical ingredients is a very important issue in the cleaning industry as well as the ISSA research project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on using Safer Choice labeled products. 

“Any cleaning product can be used safely if workers are trained and have knowledge about cleaning ingredients and are provided with and wear personal protective equipment that decreases the risk of exposure to chemicals,” Macgregor-Skinner says.

While more research into specific compounds is needed, safety recommendations are available. A 2022 evaluation of certain quats by the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction scheme offered the following control measures for risk management in the workplace:

• using closed systems or isolating operations

• using local exhaust ventilation to prevent these chemicals from entering the breathing zone of any worker

• minimising manual processes and work tasks through automating processes

• adopting work procedures that minimise splashes and spills

• cleaning equipment and work areas regularly

• using protective equipment that is designed, constructed, and operated to ensure that the worker does not come into contact with these chemicals.

The advice concluded:

“Personal protective equipment should not solely be relied upon to control risk and should only be used when all other reasonably practicable control measures do not eliminate or sufficiently minimise risk.”

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