Cleaning & Sanitizing

Are We Disinfecting Too Much?

Schools are in an exceedingly difficult position right now when it comes to protecting students and keeping staff healthy. In March, when it became clear the pandemic had hit our shores, schools were still open, and many administrators acted on what — looking back — were knee-jerk reactions to help keep their schools functioning.

Cleaning protocols were amplified significantly, which was good, but just about anything and everything that could be disinfected was disinfected, which was not so good.

Administrators got a bit of a breather when classes were closed, instruction went online, and the summer break began. But now, some districts are about to reopen. Will administrators be better prepared to address the cleaning needs of their schools this time?

Will a more methodical, well-thought-out approach be implemented for disinfectant use or, will they be once again randomly applied, essentially using a “hope for the best” mentality?

Let’s hope application is not random, and here is why. In the U.S., disinfectants are considered “pesticides” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and rightly so. They kill bugs, in this case, the germs and bacteria that can cause disease. But in doing so, they can also harm the user as well as the indoor environment. 

If you are thinking about switching to a “green” disinfectant, one that may have a reduced impact on the user and the environment, think again. In the U.S., none exists. The EPA runs the show when it comes to disinfectants in the U.S. If the disinfectant meets specific EPA guidelines and standards — which do help us protect health — and does what the manufacturer says it can do, it becomes a “registered” disinfectant by the EPA and can be marketed to school districts.

But beyond their negative environmental impacts, disinfectants do have drawbacks. Among them are the following:

They are costly. Considerable time, research, and testing are required to manufacture disinfectants, all of which are reflected in their costs.

They require application training. Has the disinfectant been properly mixed? Dilution ratios vary on disinfectants and improper dilution can reduce the efficacy of the product.  Other application and training concerns include the following:   

  • Has the surface been cleaned first before using a disinfectant?
  • Has the disinfectant been allowed to “set” on a surface before removing?
  • Did the disinfectant dry on the surface before it could be removed?
  • Was the same cleaning cloth used to clean the surface also used to wipe the disinfectant from the surface?  This can spread pathogens and reduce the effectiveness of the disinfectant.
  • Has the disinfectant saturated the cleaning cloth or mop?  If so, quat binding, as we shall explain below, may occur and the disinfectant may lose its efficacy.

They can leave a false sense of security. If disinfectants were not mixed or applied correctly, we might believe they are killing pathogens when, in fact, they may not be. This false sense of security has been elevated dramatically with the use of electrostatic sprayers. While these machines can prove highly effective, often they are not used properly.  Further, the EPA is concerned because no disinfectants have been tested using an electrostatic sprayer. In other words, the EPA does not know if the disinfectant is working as tested and evaluated.

They can leave a chemical residue. We talked earlier about the disinfecting two-step — making sure that before a disinfectant is applied the surface has been cleaned. But many disinfectants require a third step: a final rinse. With some disinfectants a chemical residue can linger on surfaces, causing rapid re-soiling and attracting more pathogens to the surface. This increases the possibility of spreading disease instead of diminishing it, as is the goal.

Quat binding is a concern. Quat binding is a bit complicated to understand, but essentially what happens is that as the disinfectant is used, it is absorbed into the cleaning cloth or the mop head when mopping floors. As this happens, the disinfecting abilities of the product are diminished.

There are more issues, but the one that concerns scientists and researchers the most is that just as some infections are becoming immune to antibiotics, some pathogens are becoming resistant to disinfectants.

In the pharmaceutical industry, there has not been a rush to develop new, more powerful antibiotics because, very simply, the numbers (in other words, the profits) are not there. There is a concern that the same will be true with disinfectants.

As mentioned, these products take considerable time and research to develop. Few chemical manufacturers in the professional cleaning industry have the wherewithal to make substantial investments in disinfectant development, especially if, once again, they don’t see the “numbers.”

Options and Alternatives

Fortunately, school administrators do have options and ways to keep their school facilities clean and healthy without the overuse of disinfectants. What we must return to is effective, tested, and proven cleaning methods and systems. This is essentially the advice given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the past. According to the CDC:

“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 microorganism and soil by wiping or scrubbing is probably as important-if not more so-than any antimicrobial effect of the [disinfectant] cleaning agent.”

So, what are our options? Among them are the following:

  • Disinfect only where needed; in schools, this would be primarily “high touch” surfaces touched by many students and staff.
  • Limit disinfecting from several times per day, to only once or twice per day.
  • Disinfect properly, as referenced earlier.
  • Reevaluate cleaning tools, methods, and procedures. Mop and bucket cleaning as well as sprayers and cleaning cloths are too risky to use. Replace these methods with spray-and-vac (no touch) cleaning systems, which eliminate the use of mops, buckets, and cleaning cloths. Further, they help maintain cleaning efficacy throughout the cleaning process.*
  • Use more green-certified cleaning solutions where possible. Today’s green cleaning solutions are as good as, if not better than, many traditional cleaning solutions.
  • Because we will be cleaning more due to the virus, there is a much greater need to use solutions that have a reduced impact on the environment.

In other words, emphasize cleaning, not disinfecting. "The rush to disinfect is well-intentioned. But this can be a hazardous proposition," says Dr. Claudia Miller, an immunologist and coauthor of Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Risks.

Because of their impact on the user and the environment, she goes on to say that if we are not careful,“we’re creating another [health] problem for a whole group of people and I’m not sure we’re actually controlling infections.”

*Spray-and-vac is a term coined by ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association.  In the professional cleaning industry, this is often referred to as “no-touch” cleaning.