As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, use of disinfectants and cleaning products has skyrocketed at home, in the workplace, in schools and other public spaces. While the Center for Disease Control recommends cleaning and disinfecting to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, many disinfectants and cleaners can contain harmful chemicals that pose significant health risks.

And while touching surfaces is not believed to be the dominant way the virus spreads, cleaning and disinfecting can give people peace of mind that they are doing something to combat exposure to viruses like COVID-19, while ignoring or neglecting other proven methods of combatting the spread of illness, like handwashing.

Regardless, wherever and whenever disinfectants are being used, there are important things to keep in mind. First, pay attention to what is listed as the active ingredient. Many disinfectants contain ammonium quaternary compounds or “quats” that show up on labels with names like Benzalkonium chloride, Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, Alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride, or Didecyldimethylammonium chloride.

Quats are pesticides; they can cause acute reactions like rashes and dermatitis, and can cause lung irritation. Long-term health impacts are serious, including reproductive harm like infertility and birth defects, as well as asthma. In fact, cleaning workers regularly exposed to quats in cleaners have developed occupational asthma.

These facts become even more concerning when you consider these products are often used in schools, exposing children, teachers, and janitors.

Second, quats are contributing to the very serious problem of “superbugs” or microbes that build up resistance and cannot be controlled by antibiotics. The problem of superbugs takes on even more resonance now that we are going through a global pandemic—it’s an issue that can result in significant long-term consequences for our health.

Third, in order for disinfectants, whether a wipe or spray, to be effective, you have to clean the dirt and grim off of the surface first. To clean, choose a cleaner that does not contain harmful chemicals or fragrance.

A great resource to find safer cleaners is the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, a database that rates the safety of the ingredients used in over 2500 cleaning products. Or, make your own cleaner using ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. When using quat-based disinfectants, like disinfectant wipes, often protective gear like goggles and gloves, and/or washing hands immediately after use is recommended by manufacturers.

If you must use a disinfectant — for example, if someone in your house is infected with COVID-19 — look for ones that contain safer ingredients like alcohol/ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, lactic acid, citric acid, and thymol. Products containing all of these active ingredients have been approved by the EPA to be effective against COVID-19.

Popular brands like Clorox and Lysol include disinfectant products that contain hydrogen peroxide and lactic acid (but watch out because many Clorox and Lysol products also contain quats), but they may be harder to find in stores. You can also make your own disinfectants using ingredients that are easy to find like isopropyl alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.

To reduce the use of harmful quats-based disinfectants in schools and other public places like gyms, share our useful factsheet with decision-makers like principles and managers and ask them to switch to safer alternatives. Women’s Voices for the Earth also has a national action group, People Against Quats, made up of parents, teachers, cleaning workers, and others who are concerned about the overuse of quats and are working to stop the use in public spaces.

In Missoula, Superintendent Rob Watson told one PAQ member that he had planned to survey the existing stock of school cleaners to identify whether the district uses cleaners and disinfectants containing quats. On the classroom level, you can ask your child’s teacher not to include disinfectant wipes containing quats on back-to-school supply lists.

Life is hard right now—there is new information coming out every day about COVID-19 and it’s a very overwhelming time for everyone. Among other things this pandemic is teaching us is not to take our health for granted.

Choosing safer cleaners and disinfectants is one way to protect your health from long term illness and harm, and sharing this information with others is a way we can help protect our community from unnecessary exposure to harmful chemicals. Women’s Voices for the Earth is here to support you! Visit our website to learn more

Jamie McConnell is the Deputy Director at Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE), a national environmental health organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that harm our homes and environment. Since 2007, WVE has run a sustained campaign to promote ingredient safety and ingredient disclosure in the cleaning products industry. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

Now through April. Montana Legislature is in session. Get the awesome “How to be Involved Guide” from Montana Free Press. To follow efforts for clean energy, climate, conservation and sustainability, consider connecting with (and getting the low down and action alerts from):

· Montana Renewable Energy Association

· Montana Environmental Information Center

· Montana Conservation Voters

· Northern Plains Resource Council

Through April. Missoula Valley Winter Market. Located in the Southgate Mall (in former Lucky’s Market). Market hours: Saturdays, 9am-2pm through April 17.

Through April 22. Thursdays, 7pm. Seeking Sustainability Lecture Series. In 2020, this lecture series celebrated 50 years of Earth Day by focusing on Missoula’s sustainability efforts & featuring 60 speakers. In 2021 many of those speakers will return to give updates on how their programs have adapted to the crises we face. Check out this year’s schedule here. 2020 recordings are available here.

February 11. (Virtual) Board of County Commissioners meeting (2 pm) to vote on making existing cryptocurrency zoning regulations permanent. Learn more about why cryptocurrency mining operations need regulations (hint – they use a crazy amount of electricity!) and how to make comments here.

Through February 13 (dates added periodically). Virtual Fixit Clinics. Want to try fixing from home? Present your broken item to a global team of expert community repairers and get suggestions for things to try. After all items are presented, participants move to Zoom breakout rooms to implement the suggestions and, hopefully, fix the items.

February 8 – March 29. Mondays 6 – 7:30 pm. My Grandmother’s Hands Practice Group. This invitation is for white identifying folks in Missoula or the surrounding areas to join an 8-week virtual community practice group to examine white-body supremacy and create a new type of lasting relationship rooted in racial justice and accountability. More info here.

Feb. 18. Leave it Wild: Urban and residential spaces; 4-5:30 p.m. Join Families for a Livable Climate and Stories for Action from this free happy hour event to find out how actions taken on your front step and in Montana towns can have a great impact on waterways, biodiversity, climate action and community. Register here.

Find more local activities and events at and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.