Are We Over Disinfecting Airports Was Published in Airport Business Magazine for Client Kaivac.
According to the World Economic Forum, an impartial, nonprofit organization that focuses on issues impacting the world economy, COVID-19 has highlighted the shortcomings of the aviation industry worldwide when it comes to protecting human health. The organization reports:
Airports, which ferry millions of passengers every day, unwittingly became the gateway for this contagion.
There is no clear mechanism in place [in airports] to monitor passenger movement, screen and test them for infection, and assist authorities to monitor and geo-fence quarantined cases.
With the help of such plans, perhaps COVID-19 could have been nipped in the bud. But it is not too late. Airports can still play a key role in containing the current pandemic spread.1
The Forum goes on to say that airports here and around the world need to “re-engineer air travel,” including having passenger screening and testing protocols in place long before passengers ever get to an airport.
This might require having passengers use some type of mobile app that includes recent travel information along with pertinent health information, such as whether they have been recently tested for the virus. This would be available for inspection as soon as they arrive at the airport.
Taking such steps should help slow the spread of the disease. It has the potential of stopping someone who may be asymptomatic—and therefore, do not know they have the disease, making them an unwitting carrier—from potentially boarding a plane and spreading the virus to others onboard or in other locations.
While this strategy has potential, what airports worldwide are doing in the meantime to help slow the spread is ramping up disinfecting programs dramatically. Many types of systems are now in place or being considered to accomplish this, including the use of electrostatic sprayers that mist surfaces with a disinfectant, as well as the greatly expanded use of disinfectants in general.
However, it is this expanded use of disinfectants that is now coming into question. Some public health experts are asking if they are even needed.
Further, because they are being used in such dramatically high volumes in airports and other facilities, with the potential to harm the user as well as building users, concerns are mounting that they may be causing more health-related problems than they are solving.
Let us look at these two issues one by one, starting with concerns about disinfectants.
The Problem with Disinfectants
Without question, disinfectants have helped protect health. They kill pathogens and microorganisms and are one of the most important chemical solutions available in the professional cleaning industry. In some facilities, such as hospitals, their use is required in certain areas of the facility.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency classifies disinfectants as “pesticides.” Pesticides are designed to kill not only pathogens but other living things as well. Their use, or overuse, in cleaning can prove harmful to both the user of the product and building users, in this case people in airports. (See Sidebar: How About Using Green Disinfectants?)
As we mentioned earlier, due to anxiety about the pandemic, disinfectants are now being used much more frequently and just about everywhere. This is happening so much that a June 2020 article in Bloomberg Law, “Rush to Disinfect Offices Has Some Environmental Health Experts Worried,” suggests we are overusing disinfectants to the point that it is replacing one problem with another.
These are “hugely toxic chemicals,” says Claudia Miller, an immunologist, allergist, and coauthor of the book Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes. “We’re creating another problem for a whole group of people and I’m not sure we’re actually controlling infections.“2
The Life Span of the Virus on Surfaces
Almost from the beginning of the pandemic, studies have found that the coronavirus can live on surfaces for as much as five days. This means that during that time, if someone touches a contaminated surface and then touches their face, they can become infected.
Most studies have concluded that the virus can live on glass for about five days; wood, about four days; and plastic and stainless-steel surfaces, three days.
However, a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet suggests that those results are only accurate in the lab. In a real-life situation, the study argues, the virus may only live a few hours on surfaces, not a few days. If this is true, the excessive use of disinfectants can at least be minimized, if not eliminated.
The study was authored by Emanuel Goldman, professor of microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics at New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers University. In essence, he says that while laboratory tests find the virus can live several days on surfaces, these tests “have little resemblance to real-life scenarios.”
In laboratories, Goldman explains, large samples of the virus are placed on test surfaces. This is not what would likely happen in a real-life situation. Further, the virus is not allowed to dry out in these studies. In other words, measures are taken to keep the virus alive.
“None of these studies present scenarios akin to real-life situations,” says Goldman. “By contrast, one study found human coronavirus 229E to survive for only 3 to 6 hours (depending on the surface tested) and human coronavirus OC43 to survive for 1 hour after drying on various surfaces.”3,4
If Goldman is correct, then many of the surfaces in an airport that are less frequently touched may not need to be disinfected as often or possibly at all. The pathogen that causes COVID-19 may die or become deactivated on its own.
So where does this leave us? What should airport administrators do to keep their facilities healthy, but without over-disinfecting? According to Matt Morrison with Kaivac, developers of professional cleaning systems designed to help stop the spread of infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may have the answer.
“The CDC says that in most cases, all that is needed to stop the spread of COVID and many other diseases is effective cleaning.” This is based on a May 7, 2020, directive issued by the CDC. The directive states:
Normal routine cleaning with soap and water will decrease how much of the virus is on surfaces and objects, which reduces the risk of exposure.
However, Morrison points out that in an airport setting, how surfaces are cleaned is crucial to ensure they are effectively cleaned. For instance, he points to studies going back to the 1970s that have found that mopping floors can spread disease. Similar studies have been conducted using cleaning cloths. These studies found that as the mop or cloth becomes saturated, instead of absorbing pathogens, it spreads them further over surfaces.
Morrison recommends that airport administrators encourage the use of no-touch or “spray-and-vac” cleaning systems, as they are called by ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association. With these systems, no mops or cleaning cloths are used in the cleaning process. Rather, these machines apply fresh cleaning solution to all surfaces to be cleaned. The same areas are pressure rinsed, and then moisture and soils are vacuumed up.
“While disinfectants can be used [in no-touch cleaning],” adds Morrison, “often they are not necessary.”
Does Morrison recommend not using disinfectants, now that we know they may be overused and may not even be needed? No. He says more studies, especially on the life span of the virus, are needed. “However, cleaning frequencies with more effective cleaning systems should be incorporated. There has always been a close connection between cleaning and health. With COVID, it is now center stage.”
Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry.
Sidebar: How About Using Green Disinfectants
In Canada and a few other countries, there are green-certified disinfectants. These are made using ingredients that have a reduced impact on the user and the environment. They are not available in the United States, however. Only EPA-registered disinfectants can be used in the U.S. Effectiveness is the main concern of the EPA; impact on the user and the environment is not the key focus.
1 Anu Pillai, “COVID-19: How Can Airports Help in the Fight Against Future Pandemics?” World Economic Forum, April 28, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/covid19-airports-pandemics-public-health/.
2Arianne Cohen, “Rush to Disinfect Offices Has Some Environmental Health Experts Worried,” Bloomberg Law, June 15, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-15/rush-to-disinfect-offices-for-covid-19-worries-health-experts.
3229E and OC43 are different forms of the virus, but both can infect humans.
4“How Long Will Coronavirus Survive on Surfaces? How long the virus survives depends on the material & outside factors,” Cleveland Clinic, August 5, 2020, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-long-will-coronavirus-survive-on-surfaces/.