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Common household chemicals linked to neurological disorders

A team of scientists led by the Case Western Reserve University has found that certain household chemicals, commonly found in products ranging from furniture to personal care items, could pose significant risks to brain health. 

Environmental factors and neurological disorders 

The study underscores the potential link between household chemicals and the development of neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and autism spectrum disorders.

Despite the prevalence of neurological conditions affecting millions worldwide, genetics alone cannot account for the majority of cases. This gap highlights the pressing need to explore environmental factors such as household chemicals as key contributors to neurological disorders.

Household chemicals directly harm brain cells

The focus of the study was on the brain’s oligodendrocytes, cells responsible for creating a protective sheath around nerve cells. 

“Loss of oligodendrocytes underlies multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases,” said principal investigator Paul Tesar, a professor of innovative therapeutics and director of the Institute for Glial Sciences at Case Western. “We now show that specific chemicals in consumer products can directly harm oligodendrocytes, representing a previously unrecognized risk factor for neurological disease.” 

Two specific classes of household chemicals 

In their quest to understand the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain, the researchers scrutinized over 1,800 chemicals humans might encounter. This examination led to the identification of two specific classes of chemicals – organophosphate flame retardants and quaternary ammonium compounds – as particularly detrimental to oligodendrocytes. 

The latter, found in numerous disinfectants and personal care products, have seen increased use since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns about widespread exposure. Similarly, organophosphate flame retardants are commonly incorporated into electronics and furniture.

Through cellular and organoid models, as well as studies in developing mouse brains, the researchers demonstrated how quaternary ammonium compounds lead to the death of oligodendrocytes, while organophosphate flame retardants inhibit their maturation.

“We found that oligodendrocytes – but not other brain cells – are surprisingly vulnerable to quaternary ammonium compounds and organophosphate flame retardants,” said lead author Erin Cohn, a graduate student in medicine at Case Western. “Understanding human exposure to these chemicals may help explain a missing link in how some neurological diseases arise.” 

Household chemicals and brain development  

The study also established a connection between exposure to these chemicals and adverse neurological outcomes in children across the nation, urging further exploration into the relationship between chemical exposure and brain health.

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

More about household chemicals

Common household chemicals, while useful for cleaning, maintenance, and personal care, can also pose health risks. Exposure to these chemicals can occur through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact, leading to a range of health concerns:

Irritation and allergies

Chemicals such as ammonia, bleach, and certain fragrances can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. Some people may also develop allergies to specific substances found in cleaning products or personal care items.

Respiratory problems

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in aerosol sprays, cleaners, and air fresheners can contribute to respiratory issues, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Long-term exposure to formaldehyde, often found in pressed-wood products and some fabrics, is associated with respiratory symptoms and cancer.

Chemical burns

Strong acids or alkalis, such as those found in drain cleaners or oven cleaners, can cause severe chemical burns upon contact with the skin or eyes.


Ingesting household chemicals, either accidentally (a common issue with children) or intentionally, can lead to poisoning. Symptoms can range from mild (nausea, vomiting) to severe (organ failure, death), depending on the substance and amount ingested.

Endocrine disruption

Certain chemicals like phthalates and parabens, commonly found in plastics and personal care products, can mimic hormones in the body, potentially leading to reproductive health issues, obesity, diabetes, and thyroid irregularities.

Neurological effects

Chronic exposure to some solvents and heavy metals (e.g., lead, mercury) in household products can affect the nervous system, leading to symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, cognitive impairments, and in severe cases, neurodegenerative diseases.


Some chemicals found in household products have been linked to cancer. For example, formaldehyde is classified as a carcinogen, and long-term exposure increases the risk of certain types of cancer.

The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.


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