Home Air Quality The Proper Use of Disinfectants in an H1N1 World

The Proper Use of Disinfectants in an H1N1 World


Hotels and restaurants that have been taking steps to green their cleaning operations may mistakenly be setting back their green cleaning programs as a result of H1N1 and other public health concerns that have surfaced in recent years.

The problem is that eradicating from surfaces the germs, bacteria, and pathogens that can spread these diseases often requires the use of powerful, EPA-registered, hospital-grade disinfectants which they erroneously believe cannot be part of a green cleaning program.

In the United States today, there are no disinfectants that can be marketed or labeled as green. Currently, disinfectants are classified as pesticides, which are powerful agents used to kill living organisms or prevent them from reproducing and have proven to be a very valuable “tools” in our efforts to protect public health.

However, due to the important and serious role these products play in protecting human health, EPA has been concerned that allowing a disinfectant or sanitizer to be marketed as “green” will lead to misuse as product users might not take their use as seriously as they should.

However, as we will discuss later, there are some alternatives to conventional disinfectants that are proving effective and can help protect the health of hotel guests and staff. But because of the growing concerns about the H1N1 flu epidemic, we must address a more challenging problem first: the proper use of disinfectants.

Quick Q & A About Disinfectants

A hotel in Chicago contracts with a nearby gym to allow its guests to use the gym’s facilities. Prominently posted at various locations throughout the gym are notices that because of H1N1, the facility is using disinfectants every day to clean restrooms and locker rooms.

As reassuring as this may sound, the cleaning professionals at the gym have not been taught how to properly use the disinfectants and there are concerns as to whether they are even using the correct disinfectants to eradicate the H1N1 virus. Essentially, they are using these disinfectants the same way they would use an all-purpose cleaner: apply the disinfectant to a surface and then immediately wipe the area dry.

Here are four key questions we must ask ourselves about this process that all cleaning professionals and housekeepers should be aware of:

• Is the disinfectant being used a “one step cleaner/disinfectant” or just a disinfectant? A cleaner/disinfectant is designed to both clean and disinfect a surface in one single application. If just a disinfectant, the surface must be cleaned first with an all-purpose or neutral cleaner before the disinfectant can be used. This is referred to as the “two-step” cleaning and disinfecting process.

• Is the product being used a disinfectant or a sanitizer? A sanitizer is designed to destroy most, but not all of a specific pathogen or bacteria. A disinfectant, on the other hand, is capable of destroying all disease-causing bacteria or pathogens as listed on its label. And for some applications, such as for cleaning food preparation surfaces, it is important to understand what products local health codes and other regulations stipulate.

• Are the cleaning workers allowing the product to dwell on the surface for the amount of time necessary to allow the chemicals to be effective? In many cases, the cleaning workers are not allowing the surface to remain wet before wiping, as referenced with the gym discussed earlier. Dwell time will be noted on the product instructions label and typically requires the surface to remain wet for five to 10 minutes to allow the chemicals to kill the organism.

• Are they using the correct disinfectant? There are scores of disinfectants on the market today; however, the active ingredients in most disinfectants are typically the same: isopropyl alcohol, phenolic, quaternary ammonium, sodium hypochlorite or hydrogen peroxide. It is the amounts of these ingredients that can vary, providing different levels of effectiveness as well as pathogen kill claims. But while the active ingredients can vary, the real key is to read the label to find specific pathogen kill claims and make sure the pathogen of concern in your property is listed.

Green Issues to Consider

But what can a hotel property do if it wants to use more environmentally responsible disinfectants? There are some options. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently does not allow manufacturers to make “green” claims for disinfectants and sanitizers, there are opportunities to reduce potential negative health and environmental impacts associated with the selection and use of these products. Some examples include:

• Prefer disinfectants and sanitizers that are more highly concentrated compared to ready-to-use or less concentrated products. Concentrates reduce environmental impacts resulting from the extra bottles and shipping cartons, as well as the transportation impacts associated with delivering the product. And concentrated products typically are more cost effective based on actual diluted use-cost.

• Prefer disinfectants and sanitizers that have a pH that is closer to neutral (pH 7) as compared to products that have a pH at the extreme ends of the scale (closer to 0 or 14). Neutral pH products reduce the risk of eye and skin irritation and burns compared to those extreme products if housekeepers are accidentally exposed to it or if residues are left on a surface.

• Prefer disinfectants and sanitizers that have a lower amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) compared to products with a higher amount of VOCs. VOCs are typically found as solvents such as alcohols in the active ingredients or fragrances which are included just to make the product smell pleasantly, both of which can cause respiratory irritation among housekeepers and occupants, and which also contribute to environmental problems when they evaporate and are ultimately exhausted outdoors.

• One final way to reduce the potential adverse health and environmental impacts that could result from the use of disinfectants and sanitizers is to make sure that they are used only when and where necessary. Examples include surfaces that guests and occupants frequently touch including door knobs, light switches, elevator buttons and bathroom fixtures while reducing their use in hallways and on walls, thereby reducing the total amount of these products being used.

It should be noted that the EPA is working with a number of leading organizations including ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association, and The Ashkin Group on a pilot program that eventually will allow the use of green-certified disinfectants in the United States. Until then, cleaning professionals and housekeepers can consider these opportunities to use more environmentally preferable alternatives.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry, as well as Sustainablity Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows jansan companies to measure, track and report on their facility’s environmental impacts. He is also coauthor of both “The Business of Green Cleaning” and “Green Cleaning for Dummies.”