Quaternary ammonium compounds are potent disinfectant chemicals commonly found in disinfectant wipes, but it is important to assess if there are any better options. Adrian Gee-Turner, Director of L’Eau Ltd discusses the key issue
In the past, quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats) were popular because they provided an opportunity to formulate disinfectants to target specific pathogens in specific applications, especially where detergent action is also required. However, as outlined above, cleaning operations should take place prior to disinfection.
The continued use of Quats within the cleaning industry continues to raise significant concerns. Their activity, for example, can be adversely affected by water hardness (during dilution), fat-containing substances, and anionic surfactants. In addition, cotton and gauze may absorb the active ingredients of Quat-based products and significantly reduce their effectiveness. Many cleaning and disinfection products containing Quats are potentially hazardous to health, and product labels contain warnings against ingestion, or exposure to skin, eyes and the respiratory system.
These products are frequently supplied in concentrated form, which presents a greater hazard and provides opportunities for mixing errors which may affect efficacy.
Quats entered the market in the early 20th century before the US EPA began regulating the manufacture and sale of potentially harmful chemicals under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act
The health effects of Quats include a range of problems from mild skin and respiratory irritation up to severe caustic burns on skin and the gastrointestinal wall (depending on concentration). Quats have also been associated with allergies and occupational asthma, and with fertility and birth defects in laboratory mice.
Given the potential health effects of Quats, the group most at risk are those of us that work with cleaning chemicals every day. A Paper published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, involving 6,235 participants over 20 years, concluded: Women cleaning at home or working as occupational cleaners had accelerated decline in lung function, suggesting that exposures related to cleaning activities may constitute a risk to long-term respiratory health.
The Quat disinfectants that contain hazardous substances also represent a threat to the environment and used containers should be incinerated or disposed of in an acceptable permitted waste disposal facility.
Potential problems occur when facility managers dictate cleaning schedules and products without the requisite training and experience
Quats entered the market in the early 20th century before the US EPA began regulating the manufacture and sale of potentially harmful chemicals under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. As a result, Quats counted as existing chemicals on the market that could continue being included in consumer products without being evaluated for safety. However, these compounds have since been extensively tested and their precautionary statements are available under the sections on Environmental Hazards, and Danger to Human Health within their registration documents on the US EPA website.
Post-pandemic, there will inevitably be a greater demand for improved disinfection procedures and most cleaning companies now include this in their services. However, if going back to normal means using these hazardous chemicals, maybe we should take this opportunity re-assess the health and environmental impacts of the products that we use?
Potential problems occur when facility managers dictate cleaning schedules and products without the requisite training and experience. It is vitally important therefore that the trained professionals in the cleaning industry are involved in these important decisions because of the health implications for staff, visitors and cleaning staff. We do not tell electricians how to carry out their work, because we know that they must adhere to regulations. The cleaning industry should be the same becuase without appropriate standards, how can anyone produce a reliable risk assessment?
The solution lies in the use of environmentally friendly products that are not hazardous to human health. However, it is vitally important that these products are as effective, or better, than the hazardous chemicals that they replace. For these reasons, hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and catholyte have become increasingly popular in the healthcare, education and facilities management sectors.
The continued use of Quats within the cleaning industry continues to raise significant concerns
Hypochlorous acid is produced naturally by our white cells to fight infections, and it is now available as a commercial product in a stable form. With a log 6 reduction, HOCl has been shown to be one of the most effective products available, and it poses no danger to humans, pets and the environment, with no PPE required.
Conscious of the need to ensure effective coverage during disinfection, L’Eau Limited has been working with the cleaning company Twotwenty2 Limited to develop a UK-designed electrostatic sprayer, and in doing so we sought the most effective HOCl product. Following extensive research and evaluation, we chose Nemesis eH2O (500 ppm), because not all HOCL products are as effective and as stable when stored.
Electrostatic sprayers should form part of all cleaning companies’ tool kit because they dramatically improve the coverage of disinfection and improve the treatment of difficult-to-access areas. All cleaning should be followed by sanitising with electrostatic sprayers, because this method maximises coverage and leaves viruses and other pathogens with no place to hide. By implementing standard procedures that ensure dwell times and coverage of all surfaces, we can create a safe environment.
We cannot wait for the government to change the way we operate; we owe it to our work colleagues, our customers, our children and our planet to stop using hazardous chemicals and choose a clean, safe, effective alternative. The cleaning industry includes professional, dedicated, hard-working staff that perform a vital role in society. We are the people that understand the implications of cleaning and disinfection chemical choices, so we are the ones who will lead the way; showing others the best way forward - we simply must take this opportunity to ensure that our disinfection procedures and materials are as effective as possible.