Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: A Chemical Class of Emerging Concern. Environmental Science & Technology 57 (20).2023.
Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs), a large class of chemicals that includes high production volume substances, have been used for decades as antimicrobials, preservatives, and antistatic agents and for other functions in cleaning, disinfecting, personal care products, and durable consumer goods. QAC use has accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the banning of 19 antimicrobials from several personal care products by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2016. Studies conducted before and after the onset of the pandemic indicate increased human exposure to QACs. Environmental releases of these chemicals have also increased. Emerging information on adverse environmental and human health impacts of QACs is motivating a reconsideration of the risks and benefits across the life cycle of their production, use, and disposal. This work presents a critical review of the literature and scientific perspective developed by a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team of authors from academia, governmental, and nonprofit organizations. The review evaluates currently available information on the ecological and human health profile of QACs and identifies multiple areas of potential concern. Adverse ecological effects include acute and chronic toxicity to susceptible aquatic organisms, with concentrations of some QACs approaching levels of concern. Suspected or known adverse health outcomes include dermal and respiratory effects, developmental and reproductive toxicity, disruption of metabolic function such as lipid homeostasis, and impairment of mitochondrial function. QACs’ role in antimicrobial resistance has also been demonstrated. In the US regulatory system, how a QAC is managed depends on how it is used, for example in pesticides or personal care products. This can result in the same QACs receiving different degrees of scrutiny depending on the use and the agency regulating it. Further, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s current method of grouping QACs based on structure, first proposed in 1988, is insufficient to address the wide range of QAC chemistries, potential toxicities, and exposure scenarios. Consequently, exposures to common mixtures of QACs and from multiple sources remain largely unassessed. Some restrictions on the use of QACs have been implemented in the US and elsewhere, primarily focused on personal care products. Assessing the risks posed by QACs is hampered by their vast structural diversity and a lack of quantitative data on exposure and toxicity for the majority of these compounds. This review identifies important data gaps and provides research and policy recommendations for preserving the utility of QAC chemistries while also seeking to limit adverse environmental and human health effects.