What We Need to Know About Quat Binding

It’s flu season. Effectively keeping the campus environment clean can help reduce the spread of the pathogens that cause the flu.

FluView, a service of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports that as of February 9, 2019, the flu season is alive and well in most of the United States.

The report indicates that people living in 48 states are suffering from widespread flu activity, and there have been nearly 7000 flu-associated hospitalizations. This amounts to an overall flu-associated hospitalization rate of nearly 24 people per 100,000 population, a rather high number. Further, there have been 34 pediatric deaths so far this flu season.

Making matters worse, 26 states are reporting “high influenza-like activity.” This means the number of people contracting the flu is likely to increase in these states.

Because of this, college administrators and housekeeping departments are doing what they do every flu season: taking extra precautions to wipe clean and disinfect “touchable” surfaces. This is important because when someone has the flu and they sneeze, for instance, the virus can become airborne and land on nearby surfaces. These nearby surfaces are later touched by others, starting the spread of cross-contamination.

However, are these steps taken every year working? It is time to take a closer look and see, and to do this, we need to learn a few things about “quat binding.”

Quat binding has been an issue for years, ever since disinfectants containing quaternary aluminum chloride—referred to as quats—were introduced. However, it has only been in the past few years that we have learned what happens to quat disinfectants when they are used for cleaning and disinfecting.

Here are some key things college and housekeeping administrators should know about quat binding, all in an effort to keep students, staff, and instructors healthy during the flu season.

What is Quat Binding?

According to Allen Rathey with the Healthy Facilities Institute, quat binding “occurs when quaternary aluminum compounds make contact with materials, such as cotton, that inactivate or impair the germ-killing performance [of the disinfectant].”

What appears to happen is that the positively charged quats are attracted to and then absorbed by the negatively charged cotton cleaning cloths or mops being used for cleaning. If the cleaning cloth or mop is left submerged in the quats for 10 minutes, it can reduce the effectiveness of the disinfectant by up to 50 percent.

Will using a higher concentration of quats help eliminate this problem? Rathey says yes, “increasing the quat concentration [helps] compensate for deactivation and absorption factors.”

However, doing so causes at least three new problems. Even using a higher concentration still means the disinfectant will eventually lose a great deal of its efficacy. Further, these disinfectants are costly. Using more costs more. Additionally, they are not environmentally friendly. “Quat binding can pollute indoor air and surfaces while not killing what you set out to kill,” says microbiologist Heidi Wilcox. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Should we stop using quats? Not necessarily. Cleaning workers need to remember not to leave cleaning cloths or mops submerged in the quat disinfectant for more than 10 minutes. This is especially true when using mops. If they do use mops, it is best to dip it in the disinfectant quickly, wring out the mop, and use it, but not put it back in the bucket. The mop head must be changed frequently. While custodial workers may view this as a hassle, these steps decrease the chance for quat binding to occur.

Additionally, administrators can select disinfectants that do not contain quats, such as hydrogen peroxide. Further, switching to microfiber cleaning cloths and mops can also help. Remember, however, when using cotton or microfiber, the cloths must be changed very frequently. As they become saturated with soils and pathogens, they begin to spread them, not remove them from surfaces.

Are there alternative cleaning methods that help prevent quat binding? One option is to apply the disinfectant directly to the surface to be cleaned and not the cloth. Be sure the area is well ventilated. Quats, as we mentioned, are not environmentally friendly, and that applies to the health of the user as well.

However, what appears to be the most effective option is to not use cloth or mops, cotton, microfiber, or otherwise, at all. What the worldwide cleaning association, ISSA, refers to as no-touch cleaning or spray-and-vac systems, pressure clean surfaces without the use of cloths or mops. Quat binding does not occur with this option.

Can you test whether surfaces are being cleaned effectively? Yes. Many housekeeping departments use ATP rapid monitoring systems. Available from several manufacturers, if these systems report a high ATP reading, they indicate not that a surface is contaminated but that it may be contaminated.

Another option is the use of UV lights, that “light up” pathogens on surfaces. Both ATP monitors and UV lights should be used on an ongoing process throughout the year to evaluate cleaning effectiveness.

About the Author

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and education industries.