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Common Household Chemicals Could Harm the Brain

Medically reviewed by Carmen Pope, BPharm. Last updated on March 26, 2024.

By Dennis Thompson HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, March 26, 2024 -- Chemicals found in common household products might damage the brain's wiring, a new study warns.

These chemicals -- found in disinfectants, cleaners, hair products, furniture and textiles -- could be linked to degenerative brain diseases like multiple sclerosis and autism, researchers report.

The chemicals specifically affect the brain’s oligodendrocytes, a specialized type of cell that generates the protective insulation found around nerve cells, researchers said.

“Loss of oligodendrocytes underlies multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases,” said principal investigator Paul Tesar, director of Case Western Reserve University’s Institute for Glial Science, in Cleveland.

For example, MS occurs due to a breakdown in myelin, the protective sheath around nerve cells.

“We now show that specific chemicals in consumer products can directly harm oligodendrocytes, representing a previously unrecognized risk factor for neurological disease,” Tesar added in a university news release.

For the study, Tesar and his colleagues analyzed the effect of more than 1,800 chemicals on these brain cells.

They identified two classes of chemicals that damage oligodendrocytes -- organophosphate flame retardants and quaternary ammonium compounds.

Quaternary ammonium compounds are present in many personal care products and disinfectants, while organophosphate flame retardants are found in many electronics and furniture, researchers said.

Lab tests showed that quaternary ammonium products cause oligodendrocytes to die, while the flame retardants prevent the maturation of these brain cells.

These classes of chemicals also damaged oligodendrocytes in the developing brains of lab mice, researchers found.

The new study was published March 25 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“We found that oligodendrocytes -- but not other brain cells -- are surprisingly vulnerable to quaternary ammonium compounds and organophosphate flame retardants,” said lead researcher Erin Cohn, a graduate student in Case Western Reserve University’s Medical Scientist Training Program. “Understanding human exposure to these chemicals may help explain a missing link in how some neurological diseases arise.”

These results are troubling because disinfectants containing quaternary ammonium compounds became more ubiquitous during the pandemic, since they are very effective at killing off viruses, researchers noted.

However, researchers added that more investigation is needed to draw a tight cause-and-effect link between the chemicals and degenerative brain diseases in humans.

“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.”


  • Case Western Reserve University, news release, March 26, 2024

Disclaimer: Statistical data in medical articles provide general trends and do not pertain to individuals. Individual factors can vary greatly. Always seek personalized medical advice for individual healthcare decisions.

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