Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Cleaning Chemical Basics

February 1, 2011

Facility managers should be diligent and informed to prevent and control the spread of infection in their facilities.

Keeping unhealthy germs out of buildings isn''t easy.

According to a recent survey by Staples Advantage, 65 percent of workers report coming to work sick.

While it is a constant battle to keep unhealthy conditions at bay, facility managers are making significant headway with access to more environmentally preferable, high-performance cleaning products that help break the chain of infection — and they are less toxic for building occupants.

However, keeping workers trained about proper infection control and prevention practices is important.

A high turnover rate among professional cleaning staff challenges facility managers to understand and effectively inform workers about infection control and appropriate product use so they can protect themselves, building occupants and visitors from harmful germs.

To get started, facility managers should familiarize themselves with the five decontamination methods and identify the ones that apply to their type of facility.

  1. Cleaning is the process of removing pollutants from the environment and putting them in their proper place. Germs are not typically killed in this process, but they can be removed along with soil and/or denied their food sources.

  2. Sanitizing reduces the microbial population, but not to the level of disinfection. Sanitization is often used in areas like the kitchen to eliminate and/or reduce germs on cutting boards and utensils.

  3. Antisepsis inhibits or destroys microorganisms on the surface of living tissue in an attempt to prevent infections. Antiseptics are not disinfectants or used on environmental surfaces.

  4. Disinfection is the destruction or removal of most pathogenic microorganisms from toilet seats, counters, tables and other contaminated environmental surfaces.

  5. Sterilization is the total elimination of all forms of microbial life using methods such as autoclaving or special chemicals.

For facility managers in non-medical settings, cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection are common methods of germ control.

Additional care should be given and disinfection should be performed in areas with higher concentrations of germs like restrooms; general cleaning may be acceptable in other areas.

When it comes to selecting cleaners and disinfectants, facility managers should be careful, as not all disinfectants are created equal; they can differ in chemistry, concentration, efficacy and toxicity.

It helps to know the facts about disinfectant chemicals:

  • Chlorine bleach is an excellent disinfectant but a poor cleaner. Active sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) is effective against a variety of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi and viruses. According to chlorine bleach label directions, surfaces must be pre-cleaned with an effective cleaning product before chlorine bleach is able to kill harmful germs. Chlorine bleach is known to react with chemicals like ammonia to create by-products and gases that are harmful to human and environmental health.

  • Phenolics are still the preferred disinfectant in some health care facilities and are used in areas like operating rooms where gross contamination of blood and bodily fluids exists. Some facility managers choose to not use phenolic-based disinfectants because of their toxic profile and aggressive characteristics on floor finishes.

  • Quaternary ammonium chlorides are the widely preferred disinfectant choice of hospitals, medical care facilities, schools and office buildings. They provide effective disinfection and sanitizing and can be formulated with detergents to provide a one-step disinfectant-cleaner. "Quats," as they are commonly known, can be formulated into hospital-strength disinfectants, disinfectant-cleaners and food contact surface sanitizers.

Before purchasing a disinfectant-cleaner, facility managers should make sure to ask the following questions to ensure they are using the appropriate disinfectant in their facility:

  • Does the product label display an authentic U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration number?

    In the United States, disinfectants and disinfectant-cleaners must be reviewed and registered by the EPA before they can be offered for sale.

    The EPA assigns and issues a registration number for each product that must be clearly displayed on every container of the product. Be sure to use EPA-registered disinfectants and/or disinfectant-cleaners that display an authentic EPA Registration Number and an EPA Establishment Number on the label of the product.

  • Are the active ingredients listed on the product label?

    Ask your manufacturer and/or distributor to provide efficacy data.

    This should include a list of the active ingredients and pathogenic microorganisms the product effectively kills and the dilution ratios displayed on the label.

  • Is the product safe for daily use by housekeepers and custodians?

    The product label should clearly identify both the appropriate applications and safety procedures to be followed when using the product.

    A guiding principle used by many health, safety and facility managers is to select a product with the lowest toxicity without sacrificing your local infection prevention and control objectives.

  • Will the product harm or damage surfaces?

    Chlorine bleach and some phenolic disinfectants can discolor or damage floor surfaces and coatings.

    Carpets, entrance matting and clothing are just a few of the fibers and materials that can be harmed when contacted by chlorine bleach solutions.

    It is a good practice to test disinfectants and/or cleaners in an inconspicuous area on all the surfaces before you select it for use in your facility.

  • What is the dilution ratio of the product being considered?

    Knowing and understanding the dilution ratio of the product you are considering is important.

    When a concentrated product is selected, you need to ensure there is an accurate and reliable way to dilute the product onsite with water.

  • Is the product a disinfectant, a one-step disinfectant-cleaner or a sanitizer?

    Disinfectants require the removal of soils from a surface before they are effective.

    Disinfectant-cleaners combine a cleaning agent with the disinfectant into a one-step product.

    The container label will specify if the product is a disinfectant, a disinfectant-cleaner or a sanitizer.

    Read the label carefully and make certain the product meets your infection prevention practices and objectives.

  • Is the product effective in hard water?

    The germ killing properties of some disinfectants can be inactivated by hard water, while others remain effective.

    It is important to know if the tap water in your facility is hard and, if so, to then make certain the product you select works in hard water.

  • What is the end-use cost of the product?

    Disinfectants packaged in convenient, ready-to-use containers are more expensive than disinfectants that are concentrated and designed to be diluted with tap water in your facility.

    Facility managers should consider the lifecycle cost of a product.

    This not only includes the acquisition price of the product, but the costs for use, handling and disposal of products over time.

    This will help facility managers make informed decisions about which products can address the three key areas of concern: Keeping germs at bay with effective products, doing more with less and maintaining a more sustainable building.

By understanding cleaning and disinfecting basics, facility managers can standardize and simplify their cleaning, disinfecting and training processes to prevent the spread of germs that cause infection.

They will not only be better equipped with the knowledge they need to manage their facilities, but also empowered to reduce costs.

In working more collaboratively with suppliers, facility managers can ensure they are buying the best products for the right situation.


Roger McFadden is senior scientist for Staples Advantage, the business-to-business division of Staples Inc. Through its Facility Solutions business, Staples Advantage offers a wide assortment of cleaning and disinfecting supplies combined with a consultative approach for customized cleaning solutions. Staples cleaning supplies include its exclusive environmentally preferable cleaners to promote worker safety, health and wellness. Roger has served as a consulting chemist and product engineer for several chemical manufacturing companies in both the U.S. and Canada. He is a charter member of the Green Chemistry Commerce Council (GC3), sits on the California Green Ribbon Science Panel and currently chairs a committee to advance Green Chemistry and the EPA Design for the Environment (DfE) Formulator Initiatives.