Disinfectants have been used in the US. and around the world longer than most people may realize. For instance, Lysol disinfectant was first introduced in 1889, and it was used in the fight against the Hamburg, Germany cholera outbreak in 1892. In 1918, Lysol was once again used to address the Spanish Flu.
Several manufacturers now make disinfectants. Many of them use the active ingredient benzalkonium chloride, a group of disinfecting chemicals known as quaternary ammonium compounds, QACs, or quats.
The reason they use these quats is that, very simply, they work. Over the decades, they have proven themselves to be effective at eliminating (killing) all types of germs, bacteria, and pathogens.
“They have become the workhorse disinfectants for around 100 years, on the frontline of most homes and hospitals,” says Bill Wuest, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University in the U.S. “Very little has been done to change them because they work so well against many common bacteria, viruses, molds and fungi, and they’re so simple and cheap to make.”
Today, some of these quat-based disinfectants are also being used to kill the pathogens that cause coronavirus. This tells us that these products have once again proven valuable when it comes to protecting human health.
However, as valuable as they are, the use of traditional disinfectants, especially those containing quats, do have drawbacks. As we look back on the past 18 months of the pandemic, there is now concern that some of these drawbacks are significant and have the potential to harm the health of the cleaning worker, building users, and the environment.
The big concern is what we now call “indiscriminate disinfecting.” This refers to the overuse of disinfectants and using them where they may not be needed at all.
The Indiana Study
A somewhat unusual study was conducted in the state of Indiana in June 2020. While it does not pertain specifically to the cleaning of commercial facilities, the researchers’ conclusions apply to all those in facility management and the professional cleaning industry.
The study found that at the start of the pandemic, there was a significant increase in the use of quat-based disinfectants in 46 test households, especially in homes that were “cleaned more often.” The scientists pointed out that staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic does require more frequent cleaning and disinfecting of the indoor environment. However, they also stated the following:
While disinfection is necessary for a safe environment during the pandemic, the increased use of quats is concerning as exposure to these compounds has been associated with adverse effects on reproductive and respiratory systems.
Furthermore, they found that 90 percent of the dust samples taken from the 46 residences contained very high concentrations of quats. This tells us that there is potential that this active ingredient is being inhaled by young and old, the more vulnerable segments of our population.
The last sentence of the report adds:
Exposure to quats can exacerbate respiratory and reproductive diseases. Our findings call for urgent research [into] risks associated with the increased exposure to these [disinfectant] chemicals.
A More Sensible Plan
Protecting building users against COVID-19 is prudent and necessary. However, what is also essential is doing so in a sensible, reasonable manner, with the goals of reducing disinfectant use and, wherever possible, seeking disinfectant alternatives that are safer to use yet still effective.
Building managers can accomplish this by working with their cleaning professionals and creating a cleaning and disinfecting program. Key elements of the program would include the following:
Determine what areas of a facility need to be both cleaned and disinfected. Realize that some surfaces may only need to be cleaned but not necessarily disinfected. “In most situations, regular cleaning (at least once per day) is enough to sufficiently remove [the] virus from surfaces,” concludes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S.
Those areas that need to be cleaned and disinfected are typically high-touch/frequently touched surfaces.
Ensure that cleaning professionals realize that in most cases, surfaces must be cleaned first and then disinfected. A two-step process. Further, the disinfectant must dwell on the surface for a few minutes and remain wet. Should the disinfectant dry on the surface, the entire two-step process must be repeated.
Ascertain how frequently these high touch areas need to be cleaned and disinfected. Contrary to what may be assumed, cleaning and disinfecting too frequently or too often is not recommended. This is indiscriminate disinfecting and is often labor-intensive, making it costly. But more important, using more cleaning solutions than necessary increases cleaning’s impact on the environment, which is unhealthy.
Safer Disinfecting Alternatives
In most areas of the world, there are no “green-certified” disinfectants. In the U.S., for instance, manufacturers submit disinfectants to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for evaluation.
While the impact of the product on the user is a consideration, the critical concern is what is referred to as the “efficacy data.” This proves that the product eliminates all the pathogens listed on the product’s label when used per the manufacturer’s instructions.
For instance, if a disinfectant claims to kill Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and the manufacturer’s efficacy data proves that the product will be effective when used properly, the product will likely be EPA-registered and marketed in the U.S. after evaluation.
However, we do have safer disinfectant alternatives. For instance, Green Seal recommends choosing disinfectants that have been tested and proven to be effective against the virus, but do not pose the health risks of traditional disinfectants. These safer alternatives include the following:
Ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol or just alcohol)
It should be noted that Green Seal’s goal when evaluating products is to help the consumer make wiser product selections and choose safer cleaning solutions. This applies to these safer disinfectants. However, the product still must perform and be effective. If not, the entire mission is defeated.
The Bottom-Line: Learned Lessons
We have learned many lessons from the pandemic. Cleaning, and the view of cleaning professionals, for example, will never be the same. For facility managers, cleaning workers are “frontline workers,” helping to keep building users safe and facilities open.
However, we need to learn another lesson. While they have many benefits and have indeed served us well, traditional disinfectants can be harmful to human health. Facility managers should take steps to ensure this does not happen in their facilities. Creating a cleaning and disinfecting program is key to preventing this from happening.
Doug Gatlin is a recognized expert in designing, developing, and deploying voluntary market transformation programs and has held senior leadership positions with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Program. He is now CEO of Green Seal, a global nonprofit organization and leading ecolabel for cleaning and facility care products and services.
Zheng, Guomao & Filippelli, Gabriel & Salamova, Amina. (2020). Increased Indoor Exposure to Commonly Use Disinfectants during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. XXXX. 10.1021/acs.estlett.0c00587.