On behalf of the Vienna Ombuds Office for Environmental Protection the Bureau for Chemical Engineering TB-Klade took a closer look on disinfecting household products. Examined was the range of all-purpose cleaners, wipes and sponges, gels, soaps and detergents found on the shelves of retailers and drugstores which are explicitly labelled with disinfecting efficiency. Such is indicated by the phrases “antibacterial”, “disinfecting”, “eliminates 99.99% of bacteria” or “eliminates germs, bacteria, viruses and mould”. An inventory in shopping-malls revealed 78 of such products. Their packaging was analysed in terms of nature and quantity of the applied biocidal active substances. Datasets published by the European Chemicals Agency ECHA were used to draw conclusions about the consequential effects to human health and the environment[1], [2]v. Findings concerning applied biocidal substances can be summarized as follows:

  • The application of biocidal active substances such as organic acids, alcohols and peroxides generally appear unproblematic. Caution however is required because of their irritating and corrosive effects to skin and eyes. When working with them it is indicated not to splash and to wear gloves. Their environmental risks are considerable low due to given ready biodegradability.
  • The application of silver-containing kitchen sponges and towels is problematic since they release highly environmentally toxic silver ions. Silver cannot be decomposed and may accumulate in the sediment of natural waters. The household application in low concentration promotes the development of resistant germs and potentially compromises valuable uses of silver in the healthcare system (e.g. in catheter and wound dressings).
  • In particular problematic is the application of hygienic rinse agents for laundry disinfection. The biocidal active substances used – Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC) and Didecyldimethylammonium Chloride (DDAC) – are important representatives of the Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QACs). Due to their insufficient degradability they can be found in sewage sludge and sediments. Moreover their long-term exposure to microbes in the environment may reinforce resistance toward clinically relevant antibiotics. The frequent application of hygienic rinse agents may cause health problems to: Since QACs adhere to fibers the wearing of treated clothes may contaminate the living environment: It was found that residues from the ventilation ducts of schools contained surprising high amounts of QACs. This is additionally worrying since QACs show a certain sensitizing potential. These potential risks in application stands opposite a weak or questionable benefit: Generally speaking laundry disinfection is only justified if the clothes – for instance due to a fungal infection – has already been contaminated and cannot be washed at 60 degrees.

With regard to the potential benefit of disinfection in the living environment “household” the vast majority of experts agree that unfounded routine disinfection would do more harm than good. For them only very specific situations justify disinfecting measures in the household: For example if a family member suffers from a highly contagious disease or if persons have a weakened immune system due to (for instance) chemotherapy or advanced age.

Therefore the study proposes to make the access of private individuals to disinfectants conditional to a justified need: A proposed measure is to transfer the sale from supermarkets to pharmacies and associated it with a competent consultancy. Another proposed measure aims at the implementation of the EU Biocidal Products Regulation: So in the course of product approval “household” applications checked and scrutinized by hygienic experts. Subsequently the size of the product could be adjusted to the indicated application and the packaging should provide appropriate use instructions.

The study can be downloaded here (as english summary only).

A (german) version can be also found on the webpage of Vienna Ombuds Office for Environmental Protection: http://wua-wien.at/positionen-und-stellungnahmen/studie-desinfektionsreiniger-2

[1] https://echa.europa.eu/de/information-on-chemicals/registered-substances

[2] https://echa.europa.eu/de/information-on-chemicals/biocidal-active-substances