Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Contaminants in unusual places

September 19, 2010
Americans traveling to Europe may note an unusual charge on some restaurant bills.

Added to the total tab may be a “cover charge,” which covers not the entry to the restaurant, but the cost of placing a fresh, clean tablecloth on the table.

The tablecloth is not just for appearance or to add to the dining room’s ambiance.

Instead it is for hygiene.

A bare wood or Formica tabletop surface, now very common in restaurants around the world, can become a storehouse of germs and bacteria during the course of the evening, and the tablecloth helps prevent this.

Tabletops as germ centers
Restaurant tables become germ centers in many ways.

For instance, patrons sneeze at the table, spreading germs over large areas of the tabletop.

As patrons touch the table, the potential for cross-contamination mounts.

And, as most epidemiologists will tell you, more germs are spread from touching common surfaces than any other form of contact.

Worse yet, at the conclusion of the meal, it is not unusual for rushed restaurant staff to simply wipe down the tabletop with moist, often soiled cloths and towels.

Their interest is not necessarily hygiene.

Instead, it is just getting the table ready and presentable for the next set of patrons as quickly as possible.

Serious situation
According to Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist with the University of Arizona, this is a bigger problem than it may appear.

“That’s one of the things that we’ve observed in our research,” Gerba says. “It’s probably better not cleaning than cleaning improperly because you can spread microorganisms around the facility without realizing it. So, you have to realize you can actually create more of a problem if you’re not cleaning properly.”

Contaminated tabletops are an example of the hidden, often unknown, “bacteria fest” that covers many surfaces we use each and every day.

Most people, and likely many professionals in the cleaning industry as well as facility managers, may not even realize this bacteria fest exists.

However, as the JanSan industry makes cleaning for health a top priority in the 21st century, we must become more aware of these areas and what can be done to correct them to protect human health.

Stage settings
William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely the players.”

He probably should have also added bacteria, germs and microorganisms to that list of players.

In one study presented to the American Society for Microbiology, 15 people with lab-confirmed rhinovirus colds, which causes more than half the colds people contract, were asked to spend a night in a hotel.

Each was given a separate room and asked to use the room as he or she normally would on a business trip and then check out the next morning.

The following morning, all 15 rooms were tested.

It was found that more than one-third of the objects in the rooms were contaminated with rhinovirus — ready and waiting to be spread to the next hotel guest.

Among the areas where the virus turned up:
  • 14 of the 15 door handles were contaminated.
  • Six of 14 pens were contaminated.
  • The light switches in every room tested positive.
  • All television remote controls were positive as well as all faucet handles.
  • Five of the 15 telephones were used and all five were contaminated.
  • Traces of the virus were also found on all of the shower curtains, coffee makers, and alarm clocks.
Similar studies have been conducted in office settings.

In these studies, personal workstations were found to harbor 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table and 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.

The top six bacteria-harboring office items were telephones, desks, computer keyboards, mice, fax machines, and the office photocopier.

Another study found that the desks and workstations of accountants were by far the germiest, with nearly 13,000 bacteria per square inch.

These desks were followed in germ count by the desks of teachers, bankers, radio DJs, and doctors.

Contradictory findings
This is somewhat contradicted by Gerba in an article published in KaiScience, an online community of scientists, medical doctors, public health, cleaning industry professionals, and academics committed to fostering a cleaner, healthier indoors.

According to Gerba’s studies, the most bacteria per square inch was found on surfaces used by school teachers.

This, he concluded, may be due to constant teacher contact with children or children’s interaction with surrounding surfaces.

Although in many office situations, only one person may use these desks and work stations, bacteria will grow on the surface, potentially infecting the occupant or, through touching other surfaces just like the tabletops mentioned earlier, spread to others in the facility.

Cast of characters
Often we discuss the terms “germs” and “microorganisms” and lump them together to refer to all kinds of potentially health-threatening bacteria.

However, this should be clarified.

There are four major types of germs that can make people sick: Bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa.

Although different, all four types of germs are part of the hidden bacteria fest found on common surfaces we touch and use every day.

In order to maintain a clean and healthy environment, cleaning professionals need to incorporate steps to first detect them and then, if present, effectively remove them.

Happy endings
We now know that judging just by appearance is rarely a satisfactory way to determine whether a surface is really clean.

However, in typical cleaning situations, there have been few other options.

In the past few years, however, science and new technologies have been introduced that can provide proof that a surface is hygienically clean.

“We’ve been basing our cleaning on mops and rags, it’s time for an innovation in tools and technology, and I think that’s what we’re looking for,” Gerba explains. “The future of hygiene is better tools, more effective tools, and a way of measuring that effectiveness and use of disinfectants.”

One such rapid hygiene measurement technology is the ATP monitor, which detects the presence of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a molecule that is the primary energy conductor within all living cells and is often considered the foundation of all life.

If ATP is detected on a surface, the detection system provides a risk assessment and can serve as a red flag to cleaning professionals that bacteria may be present.

Once detected, eliminating the ATP and possible contaminants is the next step in cleaning for health, but this may not be as simple as once believed.

For instance, studies now indicate that cleaning contaminated desks with conventional cleaning cloths or even microfiber towels may spread more soil and germs than it removes.

This occurs because during the cleaning process the cloths can leave two to eight times more soil on the last surface cleaned than the first.

“We’ve actually found in several of our studies that sponges and rags used to clean surfaces end up being microbial compost heaps because bacteria can grow to large numbers in those,” notes Gerba. “Both in the home and in restaurants you’re actually laying down a thin layer of E. coli when you’re wiping a surface, without really realizing it.”

Fortunately, new technologies have been introduced that help maintain cleaning consistency and thoroughness throughout the cleaning process on such surfaces.

For instance, an innovative flat surface cleaning system (FSC) was recently introduced at last year’s ISSA trade show.

This system minimizes the use of cleaning cloths to remove contaminants.

Instead, a motorized chemical injection system applies diluted chemicals and disinfectants directly onto a microfiber pad mounted on a trowel.

This is then used to apply cleaning solution to the surface.

After the surface is wiped down, the same area is cleaned and dried using a squeegee, simultaneously removing contaminants as it dries the surface.

Dr. Stuart Levy, a Tufts University physician who heads the Alliance for Prudent Antibiotic Use, advises cleaning professionals and facility managers that they need not “go overboard trying to de-bug their facilities. We don’t want to go through facilities with a blowtorch to keep them clean.”

Instead, he and others suggest we need to become much more aware of the unusual places where dangerous germs and bacteria may reside and include these areas in our regular cleaning routines.

Additionally, we must make sure the tools and equipment we use to clean these areas are really doing the job and are contributing to the goal of our industry — keeping buildings and building occupants healthy.

“We really are, in a way, guardians of unseen public health and I don’t think we should understate that,” Gerba says.

Angelo Poneris is a customer service supervisor for Valley Supply, a JanSan distributor in Hamilton, OH.