Research finds common household chemicals lead to birth defects in mice

June 17, 2017, Virginia Tech
Terry Hrubec. Credit: Virginia Tech

A new study at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech has found a connection between common household chemicals and birth defects.

Known as quaternary ammonium compounds or "quats," the chemicals are often used as disinfectants and preservatives in household and personal products such as cleaners, laundry detergent, fabric softener, shampoo and conditioner, and eye drops. The research demonstrated a link between quats and neural tube birth defects in both mice and rats.

"These chemicals are regularly used in the home, hospital, public spaces, and swimming pools," said Terry Hrubec, associate professor of anatomy at the VCOM-Virginia campus and research assistant professor in the veterinary college's Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. "Most people are exposed on a regular basis."

Hrubec investigated the effect of two commonly used quats: alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride and didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride. These are often listed on ingredient lists as ADBAC and DDAC, respectively, and are valued for their antimicrobial and antistatic properties, as well as their ability to lower surface tension. Hrubec found that exposure to these chemicals resulted in neural tube birth defects—the same birth defect as spina bifida and anencephaly in humans.

"Birth defects were seen when both males and females were exposed, as well as when only one parent was exposed," said Hrubec, who is first author on the study and holds both a doctor of veterinary medicine degree and Ph.D. from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. "The fact that birth defects could be seen when only the father was exposed means that we need to expand our scope of prenatal care to include the father."

Hrubec found that mice and rats did not even need to be dosed with the chemicals to see the effect. Her research shows that simply using quat-based cleaners in the same room as the mice was enough to cause birth defects. "We also observed increased birth defects in rodents for two generations after stopping exposure," Hrubec added.

An earlier study in Hrubec's laboratory found that these chemicals led to reproductive declines in mice. Follow-up research found that quats were decreasing sperm counts in males and ovulation in females. The research raises the possibility of quats contributing to human infertility, which has been on the rise in recent decades.

"We are asked all of the time, 'You see your results in mice. How do you know that it's toxic in humans?'" Hrubec said. "Our research on mice and rats shows that these chemicals affect the embryonic development of these animals. Since rodent research is the gold standard in the , this raises a big red flag that these chemicals may be toxic to humans as well."

Quaternary ammonium compounds were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s before the standardization of toxicity studies. Chemical manufacturers conducted some toxicity studies on the compounds during this period, but they were never published. Today, the chemicals are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hrubec noted that an epidemiological study could determine whether people who have a high rate of exposure, such as healthcare workers or restaurant servers, have a more difficult time becoming pregnant or have a greater likelihood of having children with neural tube birth defects, but no such study has been conducted to date.

Explore further: Common household chemicals decrease reproduction in mice, study finds

More information: Terry C. Hrubec et al, Ambient and dosed exposure to quaternary ammonium disinfectants causes neural tube defects in rodents, Birth Defects Research (2017). DOI: 10.1002/bdr2.1064

Related Stories

Common household chemicals decrease reproduction in mice, study finds

August 13, 2014
Virginia Tech researchers who were using a disinfectant when handling mice have discovered that two active ingredients in it cause declines in mouse reproduction.

Common disinfectants impair mouse fertility

November 10, 2014
Mice possess a notable talent: they are excellent at making more mice. Their ability to reproduce at a breakneck pace is one reason they are often used as experimental research subjects. Thus, when Dr. Terry Hrubec realized ...

Researchers identify link between birth defect and neurodegenerative diseases

April 10, 2017
A new study has found a link between neurological birth defects in infants commonly found in pregnant women with diabetes and several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases. ...

Researchers identify gene that controls birth defect common in diabetes

May 5, 2017
Researchers have identified a gene that plays a key role in the formation of neural tube defects, a problem commonly found in infants of pregnant women with diabetes. This is the first time the gene has been shown to play ...

Lack of key enzyme in the metabolism of folic acid leads to birth defects

January 17, 2013
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have discovered that the lack of a critical enzyme in the folic acid metabolic pathway leads to neural tube birth defects in developing embryos.

Link found between epilepsy drugs and birth defects

November 29, 2016
A joint study conducted by researchers from the universities of Liverpool and Manchester has found a link between birth defects and certain types of epilepsy medication.

Recommended for you

Kids with rare rapid-aging disease get hope from study drug

April 24, 2018
Children with a rare, incurable disease that causes rapid aging and early death may live longer if treated with an experimental drug first developed for cancer patients, a study suggests.

Commonly prescribed heartburn drug linked to pneumonia in older adults

April 24, 2018
Researchers at the University of Exeter have found a statistical link between pneumonia in older people and a group of medicines commonly used to neutralise stomach acid in people with heartburn or stomach ulcers. Although ...

Early treatment for leg ulcers gets patients back on their feet

April 24, 2018
Treating leg ulcers within two weeks by closing faulty veins improves healing by 12 per cent compared to standard treatment, according to new findings.

Research finds new mechanism that can cause the spread of deadly infection

April 20, 2018
Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a unique mechanism that drives the spread of a deadly infection.

Selection of a pyrethroid metabolic enzyme CYP9K1 by malaria control activities

April 20, 2018
Researchers from LSTM, with partners from a number of international institutions, have shown the rapid selection of a novel P450 enzyme leading to insecticide resistance in a major malaria vector.

Low-cost anti-hookworm drug boosts female farmers' physical fitness

April 19, 2018
Impoverished female farm workers infected with intestinal parasites known as hookworms saw significant improvements in physical fitness when they were treated with a low-cost deworming drug. The benefits were seen even in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.