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A common household chemical has caused birth defects in mice, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech found that quaternary ammonium compounds or quats—chemicals that are often used as disinfectants and preservatives in household and personal products are linked to birth defects.

“These chemicals are regularly used in the home, hospital, public spaces, and swimming pools,” Terry Hrubec, associate professor of anatomy at the VCOM-Virginia campus and research assistant professor in the veterinary college’s Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, said in a statement. “Most people are exposed on a regular basis.”

The chemicals are often found in cleaners, laundry detergent, fabric softener, shampoo and conditioners.

The researchers found that mice and rats were affected without even being dosed with the chemical, but by simply being exposed to quat-based cleaners in the same room.

In a previous study Hrubec found that the chemicals led to reproductive declines in mice and follow-up researcher showed that quats were decreasing sperm counts in males and ovulation in females.

“We are asked all of the time, ‘You see your results in mice. How do you know that it’s toxic in humans?’” Hrubec said. “Our research on mice and rats shows that these chemicals affect the embryonic development of these animals. Since rodent research is the gold standard in the biomedical sciences, this raises a big red flag that these chemicals may be toxic to humans as well.”

According to Hrubec, an epidemiological study could determine whether the chemical is harmful to people who have a high rate of exposure, including healthcare workers and restaurant servers. The study would determine whether they would have a more difficult time becoming pregnant or have a greater likelihood of having children with neural tube birth defects.

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