Green Cleaning in the Age of COVID-19 was published in IFMA for client AFFLINK
In June 2020, an article in Bloomberg Law caught the attention of several leaders in the professional cleaning industry and possibly those in facility management.
The article, “Rush to Disinfect Offices Has Some Environmental Health Experts Worried,” discusses how businesses and building managers around the country are taking a variety of steps to ensure their facilities are not only clean but also thoroughly disinfected.
The article points out that cleaning is typically performed once per day in most facilities, in the evening, when the building is closed. However, in larger locations, lobbies and such things as elevator buttons and other high-touch areas may be cleaned and disinfected every three hours. Restrooms might be cleaned and disinfected every four hours (twice during the day) and again in the evening.
Now, however, because of COVID, cleaning and disinfecting frequencies in all these areas have been ramped up considerably. These and other surfaces are being cleaned and disinfected up to eight times per day. Further, it appears that green cleaning methods and products may have been lost in the shuffle.
The use of large quantities of disinfectants has undoubtedly resulted in a boom for many chemical manufacturers in the professional cleaning industry. Just as it was hard for consumers to find household disinfectants once the pandemic had reached North American shores, many of these chemical manufacturers found they could not keep up with the demand for many types of cleaning solutions, most specifically, disinfectants.
This is understandable. There were many uncertainties about the virus back in March and April of this year. Facility managers were doing everything possible to protect the health of building tenants and, by the way, keep their doors open and their facilities operating.
However, as the Bloomberg article points out, the use of all these disinfectants can have several negative ramifications on cleaning workers, building users, and we must add, the environment.
These are “hugely toxic chemicals,” says Claudia Miller, an immunologist, allergist, and co-author 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.”
To understand what Miller means, let’s take a closer look at what disinfectants are. First, we should know there are no “green” disinfectants available in the U.S. In Canada and some other countries around the globe, disinfectants can be green certified if they meet specific criteria and standards, verifying that they have a reduced impact on the user and the environment when compared to traditional disinfectants.
Not so in the U.S. Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “registers” disinfectants. Independent testing verifies the product’s ability to kill the pathogens they are designed to kill or “deactivate” if used as instructed by the manufacturer. While the disinfectant’s impact on the user and the environment is noted, it is not the primary consideration of the testing.
The EPA categorizes disinfectants as “pesticides.” Pesticides kill, and that is what a disinfectant is designed to do. Further, this categorization applies to EPA’s new N-List of disinfectants. These are disinfectants that have been tested – or retested – and proven to be effective against SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID.
“These chemicals [disinfectants] have passed tests to show they are effective against the pathogen, but this doesn’t mean that they have been approved because they’re considered safe with regard to human health,” according to scientist Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
This is putting many facility managers in a quandary. Many have been operating their properties using green cleaning products and systems for years now. Most want to stay green and wonder what their options are to remain a green facility.
First, Is Disinfecting Needed?
Before we investigate this predicament, we need to explore the bigger question: Is disinfecting necessary?
The answer, quite unfortunately, is yes and no.
When it comes to high touch areas in a facility – those touched by many people during the day – then yes, these surfaces need to be cleaned and disinfected. (See sidebar)
We have germs on our hands that can cause disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this can include feces, both human and animal, salmonella, E. coli, norovirus, and the germs that can trigger different types of infections. They point out that, “a single gram of human feces—which is about the weight of a paper clip—can contain one trillion germs.”
So, these high touch surfaces do need to be cleaned and disinfected. However, many, if not most other surfaces do not. The CDC also says:
Most, if not all… surfaces need to be cleaned only with soap and water … depending on the nature of the surface and the degree of contamination. The actual physical removal of microorganisms and soil by wiping or scrubbing is probably as important if not more so-than any antimicrobial effect of the [disinfectant] cleaning agent.
Also, on May 7, 2020, the CDC stated that, “most surfaces and objects just need normal, routine cleaning to ensure they do not promote the spread of disease.” Moreover, as to the coronavirus specifically, the CDC adds:
So, for those areas not classified as high touch, disinfectants may not be necessary or at most, need only be used sparingly. This means that the use of green cleaning products should more than suffice.
Green Cleaning Options
So, what options do we have to help kill germs and pathogens and still protect the environment? As a membership-based, sales and marketing organization for janitorial distributors, the following are what we suggest to our distributors and their clients:
Continue using green cleaning solutions. These are tried-and-true products have proven effective and have a reduced impact on the environment. However, how they are used and applied is essential. If using microfiber cleaning cloths, be sure the cloth is changed frequently. If floor mops are being used, either flat or traditional mop heads, make sure the cleaning solution and mop heads are changed frequently, as often as after each room is cleaned.
Consider Spray-and-Vac. A term coined by ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association, these are also referred to as “no-touch” cleaning systems. Most are made to use green-certified cleaning solutions. They apply the solution to all surfaces to be cleaned then pressure rinse the area to remove soils from surfaces. Some machines then vacuum up the soils along with the rinse solution. With others, surfaces must be squeegeed dry.
Tests have found that some of these machines can remove soils and pathogens from surfaces even without the use of chemical agents. While that would be the ultimate in green cleaning, all manufacturers of this systems recommend using cleaning agents.
Look into biotechnology. One of the biggest advances in green cleaning is referred to as biotechnology. Also known as enzymatic cleaning solutions, this is a technology that utilizes biological systems and living organisms to create or develop products used for many purposes including cleaning. We have known about this biotechnology since the 1970s, however, it was not until the 1990s that we found a use for them in professional cleaning.
When applied to surfaces, these products can break down soils, grease, and oil, essentially eliminating them. However, in the process, they have little impact on the environment, either as they are used or manufactured. Further, they help eliminate odors, and, like most enzymatic cleaners, continue to work for several hours after application. Plus, because they are typically made from agricultural-byproducts, they also help promote sustainability.
Other products stemming from biotechnology are also under development and include those that can be used to target specific viruses, potentially those that cause COVID-19. Once again, these should have negligible impact on the user and the environment.
Facility managers are in incredibly challenging times. They want to keep their facilities open and the people using them healthy, but not give up all the advances they have made in the past two decades at eliminating some of the more harmful aspects of traditional cleaning.
In time, we will likely see that this overuse of disinfectants was essentially a knee-jerk reaction to the virus earlier in the year. We can now step back, evaluate our cleaning options, and determine where disinfectants are necessary and where they are not. Ultimately, this can help stop the spread of the infection as it protects building user health and the environment.
More AFFLINK articles can be found here.