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Are Disinfectants Driving the Worldwide Drop in Fertility?

Quaternary ammonium compounds often used as disinfectants have a negative impact on both male and female fertility in mice. Do they affect us, too?

Quaternary ammonium compounds found in common household disinfectants may negatively affect mouse reproduction. Scientists in two different laboratories made the observation independently, and then collaborated on tests to see whether the disinfectant chemicals might be responsible (Melin et al, Reproductive Toxicology, Dec. 2014).

Animals exposed to these agents took longer to become pregnant and had fewer pups. Mouse maternal mortality was high among the exposed animals.

Could Disinfectants Affect Human Fertility?

The scientists admit that it is too early to extrapolate from mice to human mothers. Nonetheless, these chemicals are used widely, in household cleaners, hand sanitizers, commercial disinfectants, fabric softeners, dryer sheets and as preservatives in cosmetics. As a consequence, most people have been exposed to them at some point.

If the reproductive toxicity found in mice also holds up for humans, the quaternary ammonium compounds might be partially responsible for the drop in human fertility that has been noted over the last few decades. Further studies will be needed to determine if such disinfectants pose a real risk.

Follow-Up Research:

This same research team has continued to investigate exactly how the quaternary ammonium compounds found in household bathroom and kitchen disinfectants impair fertility (Melin et al, Reproductive Toxicology, Jan. 2016). They discovered that female mice are not the only ones affected. While females exposed to these compounds spend less time in estrus, exposed male mice have lower sperm counts. Their sperm are also less mobile.

This research does not answer the question of how disinfectants may affect human fertility. It raises concerns that beg to be addressed with more research, however.

The People’s Pharmacy Perspective:

We think that disinfectants should be reserved for situations where they are truly needed, such as health care for people with infections. The researchers observed that some of the individuals doing animal care routinely disinfected their hands before and after handling the mice that had reduced fertility. Although we don’t know whether quaternary ammonium compounds will prove harmful for human fertility–and there will no doubt be significant controversy before the question is settled–it makes sense to us to minimize unnecessary exposure to such chemicals. Soap and water conscientiously applied are quite good at removing germs and should not be harmful.

Revised 2/1/18

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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