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Infection Control

Proving cleaning produces healthier environments

September 19, 2010
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Overall, feedback from the Cleaning Industry Research Institute’s (CIRI) second symposium, which was held earlier this year at the University of Maryland, was positive.

One goal of the conference is to bring more science into cleaning, and, without exception, attendees felt this was accomplished.

Additionally, the value of cleaning — or, more specifically, hygienic cleaning — was made clearer than ever before.

Cleaning protects health.

Some of those attending even commented that the JanSan industry should come under the umbrella of the health care industry since cleaning plays such a vital role in keeping people healthy and productive.

However, although the studies and data about cleaning’s health benefits are clear, less clear to many attendees was how we can prove that a surface is hygienically clean once a specific cleaning task has been performed or a system or method has been used.

In other words, how can we prove — through scientific measurement — that a cleaning task has delivered healthier cleaning results?

Appearance does not count
Although looks may be essential in Hollywood, when it comes to cleaning, we know now that appearances do not prove that a surface is clean.

In fact, appearances are beginning to play a much smaller role in evaluating cleaning performance.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Scott, a U.K. microbiologist and last year’s CIRI keynote speaker, “Microbiological contamination on surfaces cannot be observed by visual inspection. It has been shown many times that surfaces can look visually clean and yet be heavily contaminated with microbes.”

Not only can we no longer determine if a surface is clean just by its appearance, but we must also question if we are cleaning the most critical surfaces or high touch-points to help protect health.

For instance, John Richter, an engineer and technical director at Kaivac Inc., presented a study that noted toilets, which are commonly considered the No. 1 germ centers, may not be as contaminated as other surfaces.

One reason for this is because toilets and toilet seats often receive more cleaning attention than many other areas of a facility.

While conducting tests in a public school using an ATP (adenosine triphosphate bioluminescence) rapid-monitoring system to detect contamination on surfaces, Richter’s study reported:
  • The school’s toilets had an average ATP rating of about 200.
  • Restroom floors averaged 225.
  • Paper towel/soap dispensers approached 400.
  • Student desktops averaged 500.
  • Computer mice rated nearly 1,200.
According to Richter, the higher the ATP reading, the more contaminants are likely to be present.

These results correspond with findings from similar studies conducted by University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba, who found the following to be not only the most contaminated high touch-points in a school setting, but also the most likely points of cross-contamination.

For viruses, these areas include desktops, faucet handles, and paper towel dispensers.

For bacteria, these areas include water fountain toggles, pencil sharpeners, keyboards, and faucet handles.

What this tells us, according to Richter, is not that we must place less emphasis on toilet cleaning, but that much greater concentration should be given to some overlooked areas and surfaces, such as desktops and other high touch-points.

“To protect health, we must redirect our efforts to what is most commonly touched,” says Richter. “That’s where the contaminants are, and that’s where we have to remove them.”

Cleaning measurement systems
One way to test for contamination, as done in the first study, is through the use of ATP technology.

First developed in the 1970s, the computerized process was much more exacting than systems used before, but it could be expensive and slow.

In recent years, however, hand-held systems that produce results in as little as 15 seconds have been developed.

“The costs have also come down, and the systems are very versatile,” adds Richter. “Many restroom cleaning services now use them as ‘proof of service’ to prove to their clients after cleaning that surfaces are hygienically clean.”

However, ATP is not the only testing system that can prove a surface is truly clean.

Some of the other types of cleaning measurement systems that are now available include:
  • Petrifilm, in which an area to be tested is swabbed, and then the swab is applied to a growth medium on the sterile Petri dish. After a few days, the film is examined to see if microbes are present. Petrifilm plates have replaced the Petri dish, used for decades. They are much more cost-effective and easier to use.
  • A RODAC (replicate organism detection and counting) plate, which is used to detect microorganisms on surfaces.
  • Infrared moisture-detection systems.
According to Richter, some of these systems have become available and practical for use in the professional cleaning industry because they are increasingly more portable and affordable.

“And we can expect more systems and technologies to be developed in the coming years,” Richter says. “Eventually, we should be able to quickly, affordably, and easily monitor the air, water, and surfaces for specific types of microbes and organisms.”

Putting it into practice
CIRI attendees were also able to see how the science of cleaning, including the measurement of cleaning, can be put into practice in common cleaning situations.

For instance, in Richter’s presentation, school desktops were cleaned with a new microfiber cleaning cloth sprayed with a properly diluted cleaning chemical, using a circular cleaning motion.

Another set of desktops was cleaned using a flat surface cleaning (FSC) system, which Richter referred to as a “squeegee cleaning system.”

With this system, diluted chemical was applied directly onto a microfiber pad, which was then used to wipe down surfaces.

There was no circular or scrubbing motion.

A squeegee was then used to remove the solution and dry the surface.

After cleaning, the desktop surfaces were tested for both bacteria and ATP levels.

These were the results:
  • Before cleaning, average bacteria count on the desktop surfaces was approximately 4,400.
  • After cleaning with the cleaning cloth alone, the bacterial count was 154; after the FSC system, 1.
  • Before cleaning, average ATP level on the surfaces was approximately 4,000.
  • After cleaning with the microfiber cloth alone, the ATP reading was 271; after the FSC system, 9.
“My goal with this research was not to determine if one system was better or more hygienic than the other,” says Richter. “The real goal was to determine whether the systems protect health. That’s really what we and our end customers have to start asking whenever we evaluate a cleaning product.”

According to Richter, the goal of cleaning should not be how much it makes surfaces appear clean or how shiny, but rather whether it will protect the health of the people using the facility.


Angelo was born in Youngstown, OH. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from the University of Cincinnati. He is the inside sales director for Valley Janitor Supply in Hamilton, OH. He has been in the JanSan industry for over six years with experience working with manufacturers and distributors. Angelo has worked closely with experts and authors of cleaning procedures and processes. He can be contacted by phone at 513-863-7322, or via e-mail at aponeris@valleyjs.com.

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