Study Finds Disinfectant Chemicals May Harm Key Brain Cells

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A recent study using human cell cultures and mice has revealed that certain chemicals present in common household disinfectants, adhesives, and furniture fabrics could potentially harm critical supporting cells in the brain during crucial stages of their development.

Beginning with 1,823 environmentally sourced compounds of unknown toxicity, researcher Erin Cohn and her team at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio identified two classes of chemicals that either caused the death of or hindered the maturation of cells known as oligodendrocytes in laboratory settings.

Oligodendrocytes are a type of support cell in the brain responsible for wrapping around neurons to create an insulating layer that aids in the swift transmission of brain signals.

One of the identified chemical classes belongs to quaternary compounds, commonly used in disinfectant sprays, wipes, hand sanitizers, as well as personal care products like toothpaste and mouthwash to eliminate bacteria and viruses. These substances, if used incorrectly or in inadequately ventilated areas, can be ingested or inhaled.

The other class of compounds, organophosphates, functions as flame retardants and are often found in textiles, adhesives, furniture, and electronic devices. They can release harmful gases into the air of frequently occupied spaces. Given their fat-soluble nature, organophosphates can potentially penetrate the skin and reach the brain.

In experiments involving mice, pups orally exposed to one of three quaternary compounds exhibited detectable levels of these chemicals in their brain tissue several days later, indicating that these compounds can breach the blood-brain barrier, a shielding interface between the bloodstream and brain cells.

After receiving ten consecutive doses of a specific quaternary compound, cetylpyridinium chloride, during a critical period of brain development starting from five days post-birth, the animals showed reduced numbers of oligodendrocytes in their brains.

Similar outcomes were observed in brain organoids, which are clusters of human stem cells engineered to mimic developing brain tissue.

Molecular biologist Erin Cohn notes, “We found that oligodendrocytes – but not other brain cells – are surprisingly vulnerable to quaternary ammonium compounds and organophosphate flame retardants.”

Experts, however, remain cautious, stating that the concentrations of chemicals utilized in this research exceed typical human exposure levels and do not mirror real-world contact scenarios. Therefore, immediate concern may not be warranted based on these lab findings.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Should I be concerned about using household disinfectants containing quaternary compounds or organophosphates?

While the study shows potential harm to brain cells in laboratory conditions, experts advise that the concentrations used do not reflect regular human exposure. It is essential to follow instructions for product use and ensure adequate ventilation in living spaces.

Who might be more exposed to these harmful chemicals?

Individuals working in environments where industrial-strength disinfectants are commonly used, such as school and hospital cleaners, childcare providers, and those in correctional facilities, may face higher exposure levels.

Are there ongoing studies on the health effects of these compounds in humans?

Research is expanding to examine the impact of these chemicals on human health, with some studies indicating increased levels of quaternary compounds in individuals’ blood during the pandemic due to heightened disinfectant use.

What precautions can be taken to minimize potential exposure to these harmful chemicals?

Ensuring proper ventilation when using disinfectants, following product guidelines, and limiting exposure in enclosed spaces can help reduce the risk of harmful chemical inhalation or absorption through the skin.

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