Are disinfectants safe? Are regulations adequate?

warning disinfectant poison

The Sars Cov2 Coronavirus pandemic has catapulted massive growth in disinfectant and sanitizing products. But are they healthy for humans? A brief look at regulations will shake your confidence.

Are current disinfectants safe? Some are, some might not be. Especially worrisome is the sheer amount of growing chemical exposure through compounding of numerous touch points via air, food, and surfaces. A recent study revealed the chemical load is even heavier in household dust, which we breath, since Covid. Disinfectants are largely regulated by the EPA, but:

  • There is no specific EPA “disinfectant” category for regulation.
  • The Toxic Substances Control (TSCA) Act of 1976 provides EPA with authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures. When the TSCA was enacted, it grandfathered in thousands of unevaluated chemicals that were in commerce at the time.
  • Disinfectants are regulated under pesticides. Think about the implications of that. We’re putting pesticides on everything due to new Covid related cleaning standards.
  • Pesticides were excluded from TSCA.

The Chemical Safety Act of the 21st Century, signed with bipartisan support during the Obama administration, addresses shortcomings in older regulation and oversight, but the government works slowing and lobbyists are sure to win delays.The Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) manages programs under the TSCA and the Pollution Prevention Act (PPA). Under these laws, the EPA evaluates new and existing chemicals and their risks, and finds ways to prevent or reduce pollution before it gets into the environment.

The EPA Safer Choice program is supposed to help consumers and businesses choose safer products for their family, pets, and environment, without sacrificing quality. Every ingredient must meet their safety criteria for both human health and the environment, including carcinogenicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity, toxicity to aquatic life, and persistence in the environment. More than 2,000 products currently qualify. Additionally, many government entities require use of Safer Choice products. There’s a huge incentive for manufacturers to get their products on the list.

CASE 1: Have you tried a single prepackaged wipe on an airplane? When I opened mine, I immediately winced from the odor and held my breath to avoid inhaling further. Ethyl alcohol, or more specifically Alcohols, C12-18, ethers with polyethylene glycol mono-Bu ether, is the primary ingredient in popular hand sanitizers on the EPA Safer Choice list. In short, these are on the list because they’re OK if they can degrade within 10-28 days, depending on the rate of biodegradation. All said and done, these products may be safer than some other alternatives, but how safe they are for us or the environment in the concentrations that are occurring today is another question.

CASE 2: I randomly picked an all purpose cleaner from the EPA Safer Choice list to see what ingredients were in it and how safe they are. The two active ingredients in my selection were Ethoxylated Nonylphenol (NP/NPEs) and Tetrasodium Ethylene Diamine Tetraacetate. We all know that when words start to look like that, it’s probably not good for us.

  • The EPA is proposing a Significant New Use Rule (since 2014), also known as a SNUR, under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The rule would require manufacturers to provide at least 90 days notice to EPA before commencing or resuming any significant new use of the 15 NP/NPEs that are no longer used in commerce.
  • Per the EPA web site here, consumers can avoid products with NP/NPEs by looking for products with EPA’s Safer Choice Label on the shelves of major retailers. Will general purpose cleaners using NP/NPEs get the boot from the EPA’s Safer Choice list ? If so, when?
  • The EPA has been talking about banning NP/NPEs for over a decade. The EU has almost eliminated them.

About half of the EPA List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19) covid killing disinfectants list quaternary ammonium as the active ingredient. Quaternary ammonium, or Quats for short, have been in use for over 70 years. Because quats were on the market when the 1976 TSCA was passed, they were allowed to stay on the market without being evaluated for safety. Many in the chemical community are questioning their safety, especially given the rise in use since the Covid pandemic begin.

Disclaimer: The author is not a chemist. Due to the complicated subject matter, readers may want to further educate themselves about chemicals in disinfectants using a variety of government and non-government sources.


About ESG Safe: ESG Safe offers businesses sanitizing, environmental improvement and PPE solutions compatible with corporate environmental social governance goals, while improving public safety and our planet. ESG Safe’s lead disinfectant has a Covid kill rate of 60 seconds and is safe for all commercial and residential needs. ESG Safe is a Women Business Enterprise, Small Business Enterprise.