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Infection Control

The Fantasy Of Disinfection

October 11, 2011
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Over the past several years, cleaning for health has been a primary focus — as it should have been all along.

No longer is it acceptable to have a surface simply look clean; with the rising costs of health care and the increased emphasis of healthy built environments, surfaces must be hygienically clean and free of all unwanted matter — not just innate soils.

Short of sterilization — a non-realistic and almost unattainable goal — disinfection is the greatest tool we have to ensure the health and well-being of those working, living and otherwise existing in commercial facilities.

However, according to Dr. Steven Spivak, professor emeritus of the University of Maryland and chairman of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute International''s (CIRI) Science Advisory Council, efficacy in principle is rarely reached when disinfecting in practice.

Because of this failure and the time demands of cleaning services, some in the industry have dubbed the practice of attempting to remove harmful pathogens from surfaces "the fantasy of disinfection."

"It is not only building occupants at risk; end users'' well-being can be on the line by failing to regularly and effectively clean and, when needed, properly disinfect," notes Spivak.

Making Fantasy A Reality

The issue of disinfection — or the gross lack thereof — boils down to two concepts: A lack of cleaning science and deficient training.

"Custodians are not chemists; they need to be better educated and better appreciated," proclaims Jim Harris, Sr., chairman of CIRI.

Harris opines that a substantial portion of the cleaning industry, without sufficient scientific foundation, is too casual.

This feeds the public perception that cleaning is not valued for the vital function it serves — creating a healthy indoor environment.

The truth is that, without scientific validation of outcomes, continuous cleaning improvement and an increase in consciousness among the populace as to the importance of real disinfection simply will not occur.

It is unfortunate that it takes a pandemic outbreak or some other catastrophic event to open peoples'' eyes to actuality.

Even more unfortunate is how quickly a majority of us forget and revert back to traditional habits — think 2009''s H1N1 influenza A scare.

Luckily, there are some incredibly intelligent individuals — beyond consultants, manufacturer''s representatives, supervisors, etc. — who know the ins and outs of cleaning science and want to educate the masses.

These folks, who bring a passionate scientific approach to cleaning and disinfection, have no agenda to push beyond dispersing knowledge to help curb the spread of infectious germs and bacteria.

Use And Misuse

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires specific labeling for chemical disinfectants regarding dwell time, the necessary amount of time a product must remain wet on a surface to achieve the advertised kill rate.

But, custodial professionals often do not have ample time to allow sufficient dwell — especially in instances when operations are short staffed and workloads are increased.

Some simply do not understand the requirements outlined on the label — a great deal of end users cannot comprehend verbiage beyond an eighth-grade reading level — and others disregard the instructions entirely.

One fundamental mistake end users consistently make is not employing a two-step process.

Unless using a combination cleaner-disinfectant, a surface must be thoroughly cleaned before it can be properly disinfected.

Otherwise, the efforts are fruitless and time and money are wasted for naught.

Moreover, contact times are surmised through laboratory research which, according to Spivak, is often too idealistic and theoretical to mirror real life cleaning.

"There is an obvious chasm between service providers and formulators," states Harris, Sr. "CIRI serves as that bridge. It is not a savior, nor a solution — just a bridge to better understanding cleaning science and technology."

Science is unbiased and, as such, those in the commercial cleaning industry should question the "facts" they are fed and challenge what they are told.

If there is truth therein, it will be vetted and validated through science.

Green Disinfection

As Sayed Sattar, director of the Centre for Research on Environmental Microbiology at the University of Ottawa, noted in his article, "Promises and Pitfalls of Surface Disinfection," many green products possess neither the spectrum of microbiocidal activity nor the speed of action essential for use in health care settings.

While not every surface requiring disinfection is located in a health care facility, it serves as a snapshot to show that a product''s cleaning efficacy — be it a cleaner, a disinfectant or any other formulation — is far more important than its degree of environmental preferability.

Although Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification requires the exclusive use of green products, the EPA does not allow disinfectants to be labeled as such.

There are, however, many chemical-free alternatives that achieve desired sanitation or disinfection.

Things such as ultraviolet light, steam vapor, physical microbe removal and electrically-altered water are seen as alternatives to traditional disinfectants.

As Spivak points out, the EPA has been behind the curve in recognizing the capabilities of certain chemically limited devices and systems.

However, prior to its upcoming 2011 symposium on disinfection, CIRI has not yet taken a formal position on environmentally preferable or green disinfection, per se.

But, the industry does have its proponents of green disinfectants, notably Vince Elliott, chief executive officer (CEO) of Elliott Affiliates Ltd. and founder of the Chemical Free Cleaning Network LLC.

"The oft-heard mantra that chemical-free cleaning cannot compare to the level of sanitation offered by conventional, chemical-based cleaning solutions is being studied and challenged," asserts Elliott.

The Long And Short

There is a dichotomy in the commercial cleaning industry regarding research and practice.

CIRI is the only organization in all of cleaning — both commercial and consumer — consisting of independent, unbiased scientists and researchers working collectively for the betterment of public health and the environment.

It is their goal to deliver indisputable scientific evidence to raise awareness of the importance of cleaning and disinfection while dispelling misinformation that can deduct from the professionalism of the industry and cause unnecessary harm.

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