Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Germs on Campus: And What to Do About Them

steam cleaning urinals


Germs are not the enemy. They are essential to our survival. We host billions of bacteria inside and outside our bodies (e.g., in the gut and on the skin) that help to keep us healthy. In addition, microbes consume organic matter; without them, Earth would be buried in biowaste, and life as we know it would cease.

Still, wherever possible, we should reduce, remove or destroy harmful germs or pathogens before they pose a health threat or reach an “infectious dose” level.

Infectious levels of fecal bacteria, MRSA, staph and other pathogens are common in campus environments, creating a need for awareness and remedial action.

Understanding Infectious Dose

Infectious Dose (ID) is the number of pathogenic germs entering the body that are needed to make a person sick. This varies from person to person, based on genetics, immune system status and other factors.

ID level is unique to an individual, and explains why some people get sick while others do not when facing the same exposure. Still, decreasing pathogen numbers helps protect all, as well as those who are especially vulnerable.

What is the best way to reduce pathogen levels? Start by finding where harmful germs thrive, then weigh the benefits, risks and costs of different interventions.

Finding Pathogen “Petri Dishes”

Citing a prime location for germs, Lisette LeCorgne — nurse practitioner at the University of Arizona, quoted by Fox News — said it well: “Living in a dorm room is like living in a petri dish.”

There can be many pathogen “petri dish” places on campus, locations with enough moisture, warmth and a food source to grow abundant germs.

Start with Hands and Touch Points

Warm, normally-moist hands invariably touch contaminated spots — and when unwashed — harbor and grow germs, then transfer them to touch points, or, worse, directly to eyes, nose or mouth (which is why frequent hand washing is always a recommended strategy.)

Touch points include door handles, sink handles, desktops, shared computer or tablet surfaces, dorm refrigerator handles, TV remote controls and other contact spots.

Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona, is fond of saying the sink is often more contaminated than the toilet seat. This is because moisture and food are abundant on sinks that stay warm inside conditioned buildings. People also touch sink surfaces more than they do toilet seats.

Communal showers are germ zones as they are warm, moist, and loaded with body oils, skin flakes and fungal spores like those that cause Athlete’s foot.

Gym and wrestling mats are exposed to sweat, hot athletic bodies, and sloughed off skin cells, providing excellent growth media for MRSA.

steam cleaning elevator buttons


Remove Germs

Good personal hygiene involves washing hands with soap and water, then drying hands thoroughly. The focus is on removing germs and conditions promoting germ growth.

Applying the principle to facility hygiene, cleaning is the first line of defense, as removing germs is better than killing them.

Proper cleaning removes organic soil (aka, germ food), which is why measuring for post-cleaning ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) levels — using an ATP meter — as an indicator of organic soil on surfaces is part of emerging cleaning standards (e.g., ISSA’s) addressing hygienic outcomes.

When to Use Chemistry

EPA-registered disinfectants are necessary at times, but are only effective when used as directed, with the proper pre-cleaning and dwell time (how long the surface must stay wet with the germicide to kill germs as claimed). Sadly, these products are rarely used as directed, which should prompt follow up training and consideration of alternatives.

Removal Approaches

  • A squeegee on desks or counters — apply solution directly to the surface using a course sprayer or heavily-moistened microfiber pad on a hand trowel. Squeegee off the moisture, carrying away soil and germs in the solution. This method is effective at removing germ-containing or -promoting soils.
  • Spray-and-vacuum units apply cleaning solution under moderate pressure, enable agitation, then vacuum the liquid along with germs, leaving the surface virtually dry.

Better Ways to Disinfect

Beyond EPA-registered chemicals, which have their place, other approaches deserve serious consideration as part of a germ-control toolkit:

  • UV-C wsands apply ultraviolet light to surfaces killing many germs, except for those in shadows. Operators need simple training to help ensure efficacy and should avoid direct eye exposure to UV-C.
  • Dry Steam Vapor (DSV) Units apply hot “dry” (6 percent moisture) penetrating steam vapor to surfaces using insulated tools, and offer a four-way benefit — 1) DSV models deep clean even porous surfaces on contact with low-pressure, penetrating steam, 2) are chemical-free and use only tap water, 3) disinfect in seconds not minutes and kill a wide range of pathogens with almost zero dwell time (American Journal of Infection Control, 12/12/04, Evaluation of the disinfection efficacy of a novel steam vapor system) and, 4) leave surfaces dry to the touch.

Counting the Cost

Chemical interventions, while having a low upfront cost, can be expensive over time, especially when used needlessly.

Minnesota’s Olmsted Medical Center (OMC) — helped by the University of Minnesota Technical Assistance Program — “reviewed the surfaces needing disinfection vs. what was being disinfected [and were] able to reduce the number of surfaces to be disinfected by 63 percent. Reducing [disinfecting yielded] a cost savings of $10,000 annually.”

In addition, there is the human cost of exposures or reactions to chemicals which must be weighed against the efficacy of applied chemicals for reducing environmental pathogens, versus alternative methods for doing this.

Technology such as Spray-and-Vac, UV-C and Dry Steam Vapor (DSV) may carry greater upfront costs but offer ROI in terms of fewer consumables and chemicals used.


Rather than adopt just one tool or technique to control germs on campus, consider the options and select those that work best for your facility.

Removing germs and germ-promoting soil through better cleaning is a key strategy to lower infection risk, no matter which disinfection method or combination of methods you choose.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .