QACs: A Prevalent and Harmful Chemical in Disinfectants

QACs: A Prevalent and Harmful Chemical in Disinfectants

Nearly half of EPA's List N disinfecting products contain an active ingredient called a quaternary ammonium compound.

Quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs, are chemicals used in many disinfectants and cleaning products. QACs are associated with both acute and chronic damage to human health—avoiding disinfectants containing QACs can mean avoiding a serious chronic health issue.

QACs and Respiratory Harm

When using QAC disinfectants, the chemical aerosols can be easily inhaled, causing damaging effects to respiratory systems. Especially since COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, eliminating exposures to a known respiratory irritant is an important means of protecting respiratory health.

QACs are known to cause people to develop asthma, and can worsen or cause an asthma attack, for those already managing the disease. In addition to asthma and COVID-19 risks, QAC-containing disinfectants increase the chance of developing other upper respiratory disorders, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). These diseases can last a lifetime and in the case of COPD, cannot be reversed. COPD and asthma are conditions that can become chronic due to a prolonged exposure to QAC-containing disinfectants.

Other Risks

Quaternary ammonium compounds can also cause a range of skin health impacts, from mild skin irritation [25] to contact dermatitis to severe caustic burns on skin and the gastrointestinal wall (depending on concentration), gastrointestinal symptoms including nausea and vomiting, coma, convulsions, hypotension and death. [26] Quaternium-15 is the single most often found cause of allergic contact dermatitis of the hands (16.5% in 959 cases) [28]

Common acute risks associated with quaternary ammonium compounds also include injuries to the eyes.

Professionals working in healthcare settings and as maintenance workers and environmental technicians are especially likely to come into contact with these chemicals, which in turn boost the likelihood of short-term and long-term QAC injury.

QACs are just as prevalent in-home cleaning products and disinfectants from the grocery store. Check the products you already have to learn about potential associated health risks and always choose safer disinfectants, made easier with The List tool on this website.