Common Household Products May Contribute to Autism, Multiple Sclerosis

Scientists suggest that exposure to common household chemicals found in disinfectants, personal care products, and flame retardants may be a risk factor for neurological disorders because they damage specialized cells in the brain.

While genetic factors may contribute to the risk of autism, research suggests that environmental exposures to chemicals like pesticides also play a role. Other neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, are also tied to genetic variants. Still, research suggests that outside factors such as smoking and exposure to certain chemicals contribute to the condition.

However, little is known about whether specific chemicals can harm the brain and potentially increase the risk of these and other neurological conditions.

In a new study published on March 25 in Nature Neuroscience, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine examined over 1,800 common household chemicals to determine which compounds impact brain health.

They found that two of these commonly used chemicals can harm specialized cells in the brain called oligodendrocytes, which produce a protective barrier around nerve cells.

Specifically, the team found that organophosphate flame retardants and quaternary ammonium (quats or QACs) — compounds found in household disinfectants, electronics, personal care products, and furniture — can cause oligodendrocytes to die or fail to mature.

Research published in 2022 suggests that damage to oligodendrocytes is associated with disorders such as multiple sclerosis, autism spectrum disorder, and other neurological conditions.

In a press release, lead investigator Paul Tesar, the Dr. Donald and Ruth Weber Goodman Professor of Innovative Therapeutics and director of the Institute for Glial Sciences at the School of Medicine, said, "Loss of oligodendrocytes underlies multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases. We now show that specific chemicals in consumer products can directly harm oligodendrocytes, representing a previously unrecognized risk factor for neurological disease."

While the scientists initially discovered organophosphate and QACs damaged oligodendrocytes in cellular and organoid lab experiments, rodent studies showed the chemicals could also harm these brain cells in mice.

Moreover, the research team analyzed epidemiological data and found that childhood exposure to the primary organophosphate flame retardant identified in the study is linked to adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes in children.

"Our findings suggest that more comprehensive scrutiny of the impacts of these common household chemicals on brain health is necessary," Tesar said. "We hope our work will contribute to informed decisions regarding regulatory measures or behavioral interventions to minimize chemical exposure and protect human health."

Products that contain organophosphate flame retardants

Organophosphate flame retardants are found in electronics, upholstered furniture, building materials, and other consumer products. Manufacturers have increased the use of the chemical due to phasing out of other flame retardants over toxicity concerns.

However, 2019 research suggests that the increased use of organophosphates may be a "regrettable substitution" and might be just as harmful to human health as older chemicals.

According to the Green Science Policy Institute, people purchasing furniture made after January 1, 2015, can avoid bringing a flame retardant-treated item into their home by checking the product's label, as it should indicate whether it contains these chemicals.

QACs in common household products

According to the U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies QACs as pesticides. Products that contain them are often labeled "antibacterial."

Furthermore, a 2023 study found that QAC use increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the chemical's presence in wastewater treatment plants increased by 331% after the pandemic began. Moreover, QACs levels in house dust rose by 62%, resulting in higher concentrations of the chemical in human blood and breast milk.

Common household products that may contain QACs include:

  • Shampoos
  • Toilet cleaners
  • Hand soap
  • Shaving cream
  • Baby wipes
  • Body wash

  • Sunscreens
  • Moisturizers
  • Disinfectant sprays
  • Liquid fabric softeners
  • Dryer sheets
  • Disinfectants
  • Spermicidal jellies

CISA says 70% isopropyl alcohol solution, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine bleach, or diluted iodine are alternatives to QAC-based disinfectants. However, their effectiveness at killing specific bacteria, viruses, and fungi varies. While organic, non-toxic, or natural cleaning products may clean surfaces effectively, most do not eliminate germs.

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