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Dangers of Some Household Disinfectants

It might be time to skip the disinfectant wipes in favor of good old-fashioned soap and elbow grease.

By Kristi Pahr 

February 21, 2020

Like most parents, you probably have a container of disinfectant wipes stowed in pretty much every room. Next to the changing table? Yep. Under the kitchen sink? Of course. In the bathroom? Duh. There's no denying the sheer utility of them—no messy spray, just wipe and go, confident that you've done your part to defeat the spread of germs in your home. Go you!

Unfortunately, a recent report from Consumer Reports shines a light on some of the less awesome parts of the ubiquitous cleaning supply. Namely, quaternary ammonium compounds (quats for short), which as you can probably guess from the name, aren't that great for you or your kids. They're actually registered as pesticides with the EPA. Some wipes also contain bleach or hydrogen peroxide, which are also ... not great. But it's the quats that we really need to be aware of. Compounds like bleach and peroxide are familiar enough that we know to be careful when using them on surfaces our kids might touch, but quats? Who's ever even heard of those?

Turns out, inhaling quats can trigger asthmatic episodes and a 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that disinfectants that contained bleach or quats were responsible for over 30 percent of pesticide-related injuries like eye, skin, and respiratory complaints in school children.

In fact, kids are at higher risk than adults from these compounds. “Kids breathe more air per pound of bodyweight than an adult does. Their exposure will be greater in terms of inhalation than an adult exposure would be,” Jerome Paulson, M.D., a pediatrician and emeritus professor at George Washington University, told Consumer Reports.

The takeaway is this: Go easy on the disinfectants that kill bacteria and viruses. If you're not in a medical or child care facility, you probably don't need to disinfect many surfaces in your home. A good, old-fashioned cleaning can do the trick. (You can take a look at the Environmental Protection Agency's list of cleaners that aren't known to trigger respiratory difficulties.)

However, there are times when you might want to disinfect your home, like when someone has a stomach bug or the flu. Read labels and use products correctly—many need to maintain contact with the contaminated surface for several minutes before disinfection is considered complete.

And be mindful of using disinfectants anywhere near kids or older adults. Make sure there's adequate ventilation and keep little hands from contacting surfaces still wet with disinfectants—let them dry completely.

Maintaining a clean home is important, but disinfecting every surface every day is overkill. Save the money you spend on wipes and maybe treat yourself instead!

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