Do Disinfectants Pose an Ecological Risk following Use and Disposal? Integral Scientists Assess Hazards in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety
September 23, 2020
Water circling the drain with blue overlay

A new journal article summarizes the ecological hazards and fate of disinfectant “Quats” following use and disposal.

To battle the spread of COVID-19, disinfectant quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats) are a primary tool to inactivate the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces. A new peer-reviewed study published in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety summarizes the ecological hazard and environmental fate of Quats that are released to freshwater aquatic systems following “down-the-drain” disposal, wastewater treatment, and effluent discharge.  Integral scientists Paul DeLeo, Ph.D., Carolyn Huynh, and Mala Pattanayek are study coauthors.  The paper is available via open access online and will be published in the December 2020 issue (Volume 206) of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety.

DeLeo, P., C. Huynh, M. Pattanayek, K. Clark Schmid, and N. Pechacek. 2020. Assessment of ecological hazards and environmental fate of disinfectant quaternary ammonium compounds. Ecotox. Environ. Safe.

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Disinfectant quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats) have diverse uses in a variety of consumer and commercial products, particularly cleaning products. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have become a primary tool to inactivate the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces. Disinfectant Quats have very low vapor pressure, and following the use phase of the products in which they are found, disposal is typically “down-the-drain” to wastewater treatment systems. Consequently, the potential for the greatest environmental effect is to the aquatic environment, from treated effluent, and potentially to soils, which might be amended with wastewater biosolids. Among the earliest used and still common disinfectant Quats are the alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC) compounds and the dialkyl dimethyl ammonium chloride (DDAC) compounds. They are cationic surfactants often found in consumer and commercial surface cleaners. Because of their biocidal properties, disinfectant Quats are heavily regulated for human and environmental safety around the world. Consequently, there is a robust database of information regarding the ecological hazards and environmental fate of ADBAC and DDAC; however, some of the data presented are from unpublished studies that have been submitted to and reviewed by regulatory agencies (i.e., EPA and European Chemicals Agency) to support antimicrobial product registration. We summarize the available environmental fate data and the acute and chronic aquatic ecotoxicity data for freshwater species, including algae, invertebrates, fish, and plants using peer-reviewed literature and unpublished data submitted to and summarized by regulatory agencies. The lower limit of the range of the ecotoxicity data for disinfectant Quats tends to be lower than that for other surface active agents, such as nonionic or anionic surfactants. However, ecotoxicity is mitigated by environmental fate characteristics, the data for which we also summarize, including high biodegradability and a strong tendency to sorb to wastewater biosolids, sediment, and soil. As a result, disinfectant Quats are largely removed during wastewater treatment, and those residues discharged in treated effluent are likely to rapidly bind to suspended solids or sediments, thus mitigating their toxicity.