Green Disinfectants and Pathogenic Organisms


Scores of environmentally preferable cleaning products have recently become available in the janitorial marketplace. In fact, just about every type of cleaning product used on a regular basis, including glass cleaners, floor care strippers, sealers and finishes, carpet care spotters, odor eliminators, toilet bowl and urinal cleaners, and many more products now have “green” certified equivalents. Users find that many of these products not only work as well — if not better — than conventional products, but are usually very cost-effective to boot.

However, things get a bit more complicated when it comes to disinfectants, which are products designed to destroy disease-causing microorganisms. In the United States, there are no such products that truly can be considered green. This is because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibits manufacturers or distributors from promoting, labeling or marketing disinfectants as “green certified” to U.S. customers. Although some disinfectants manufactured in the U.S. and Canada and sold in Canada may bear a green certification label from, the same product can not be sold in this country with that particular labeling.

The EPA has determined that Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) registration is sufficient assurance of a product’s safety and effectiveness and that any additional claims may be misleading. However, while registration by FIFRA guarantees that a product has met the EPA’s environmental and health guidelines and standards, it does not necessarily mean that additional steps have been taken that would qualify the product as green. These steps include such things as:

• using ingredients that reduce the product’s impact on the environment

• packaging the product in recyclable materials and reducing packaging volume

• ensuring that the product meets additional performance, efficacy, human health and safety, and environmental requirements

Obviously, the lack of a green alternative for standard disinfectants can cause problems for those facilities that are trying to Green their cleaning operations. Most administrators view going green as a “total package,” not a piecemeal program. To use the old cliché, they believe they are only as green as the weakest link in their “green chain.” But for now, facility administrators and cleaning professionals have no choice but to use only EPA-registered disinfectants. As more scientific evidence emerges regarding the effectiveness and safety of environmentally preferable disinfectants, the EPA is said to be revisiting this issue.

The lack of green alternatives is not the only complication that plays a role when discussing disinfectants. Facility managers and cleaning professionals may also be confused when confronted with the different types of products that kill microorganisms, or with the different labeling language that may appear on such products. For instance, what is the difference between disinfecting and sanitizing? Do danger, warning and caution all mean the same thing when found on a product’s label? And what does the commonly seen label term hospital-use really mean — if anything?

These issues and the confusion they may cause makes it vitally important that cleaning professional know what they are doing when it comes to the purchasing and usage of disinfecting products; this knowledge will allow them to be sure that the products they use will both safeguard human health and do as little harm to the environment as possible.

What Are We Up Against?

Before beginning a discussion of disinfectants, it is important to have a complete understanding of what cleaning professionals are fighting. The enemies are the three main types of germs: bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Many laypersons and some facility managers may still believe that restrooms are likely to be the most germ-ridden areas of a facility. However, studies in recent years have proven that this is false. In fact, the average office desk, according to some reports, harbors 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat.

Studies report that the most common bacteria found in the average facility are E. coli, Klebsiella pneumonia, Streptococcus (strep), Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus (staph). Viruses such as herpes, hepatitis B, HIV and influenza are often present as well. These bacteria and viruses are found just about everywhere in varying amounts. Fungi, such as the familiar athlete’s foot, are obviously a common problem in such places as public gyms; however, they can also be contracted in hotel rooms and other public facilities.

Fortunately there are “warriors,” otherwise known as antimicrobials, that can help fight these potentially harmful microorganisms. An antimicrobial is a product that kills or significantly reduces the aforementioned microorganisms. These products must be registered with the EPA, which places antimicrobials into one of four categories:

• steriliants

• disinfectants

• sanitizers

• antiseptics and germicides

The cleaning product industry is most focused on sanitizers and disinfectants. These are the chemicals typically used to make surfaces hygienically safe and clean. Sterilizers, on the other hand, are typically used for high-level sterilization of such things as medical instruments, while antiseptics and germicides are used on living tissue, not surfaces.

Contrasting Killers

When it comes to disinfecting surfaces, it is vital to understand exactly what a disinfectant or sanitizer can and can not do as well as how to use them properly. According to EPA efficacy requirements, in order to be called a disinfectant a product must be able to destroy or irreversibly inactivate up to 99.99999 percent or more of the stated disease-causing bacteria present on a surface. (There is no such thing as a 100 percent kill rate.) Further, it must do so in the stated ‘dwell’ time, typically 5 to 10 minutes.

On the other hand, a sanitizer must be able to reduce at least 99.999 percent of the stated disease-causing bacteria within 30 seconds. The main difference between a sanitizer and a disinfectant is that when used properly, a disinfectant has a higher kill capability compared to that of a sanitizer. A sanitizer reduces — but does not necessarily eliminate — microorganisms on surfaces to levels considered safe to one’s health.

In order for either disinfectants or sanitizers to work correctly, they must first be diluted per label instructions; they must also be allowed to “dwell” on the surface; they must be used per manufacturer’s label instructions, etc. Proper dilution is not only necessary, but is also a legal requirement. That is why the labels on these products typically read: “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” Also, applying either product to a surface and then wiping immediately afterward is not effective. The chemical ingredients must be allowed sufficient time to sit on the surface in order to kill harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi before wiping or rinsing.

Getting the Signal Straight

Most people know that cleaning chemicals generally have warning labels. Even Green certified cleaning chemicals can be dangerous if not used properly and, accordingly, also have warning labels. However, many people do not know that the different types of warnings, usually referred to as “signal words,” represent four distinct government-defined toxicity categories. These categories are:

• Category 1: Danger. This category includes those products that are the most toxic and potentially harmful.

• Category 2: Warning.

• Category 3: Caution.

• Category 4: No specific signal word. This category includes those products that are the least toxic; the term Caution is often used on the labels of such products.

It is important to understand that all antimicrobials approved by and listed with the EPA are considered to be potentially harmful and extremely hazardous unless used in accordance with label instructions. Therefore, managers and cleaning workers must thoroughly understand the potentially adverse health affects these products can have. It is perhaps ironic that chemicals that are designed to protect our health may also be very dangerous if used improperly.

Although it is not technically a signal word, the term hospital-grade is often applied to disinfectants and sanitizers. Terms such as hospital-strength, for hospital use and hospital-type are also sometimes applied to antimicrobials. However, it is against EPA guidelines to use the term hospital-grade; this is because it is viewed as false or misleading.

The EPA does recognize the terms hospital-type disinfectant or hospital-use disinfectant. These are disinfectants that have been tested and are effective against Streptococcus, Salmonella and Pseudomonas. Further, the term hospital-use may also appear on a disinfectant’s label if it has been specifically approved for healthcare settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, medical centers, etc.

Clean First

Many people are not aware that in order to be disinfected, surfaces must first be thoroughly washed. Although wrestling mats may not necessarily be the type of surface most facility managers and cleaning professionals are thinking of when it comes to using disinfectants and sanitizers, they are a perfect example of the necessity of washing surfaces before using a disinfectant.

In one case study, students at a particular college complained of skin irritation, sores and infections after using wrestling and tumbling mats in the school’s gym. Many students raised concerns regarding communicable diseases, and these concerns were aggravated by the fact that blood was sometimes seen on the mats.

To rectify the problem, the college took a number of steps to ensure that both sides of these mats were disinfected immediately prior to their use; they also instituted a policy mandating that blood and other bodily fluids were to be spot cleaned as soon as they were noted.

But student complaints and health problems continued despite these attempts to rectify the situation. Apparently, the school forgot a major step in the disinfecting process: cleaning. The mats had to be cleaned first with a detergent, they discovered, and then allowed to air dry. A disinfectant was then applied, at which point the problem was eliminated.

Know Your Needs

Disinfectants and sanitizers are quite literally lifesavers. However, managers and custodial staff must know how to use them properly in order for them to be effective and safe. Facilities that are concerned about the environmental repercussions of disinfectants should review the signal words and toxicity categories on their product labels. A lower category rating will often meet the microbial kill requirements for a facility while also offering a reduced impact on the environment.

Mike Sawchuk has been involved with the jansan industry for more than 15 years. He is currently vice president and general manager of Enviro-Solutions, a leading manufacturer of certified-green cleaning chemicals, based in Ontario, Canada. A graduate of Brock University with a bachelor of business administration, Sawchuk also holds an MBA from McMaster University. As a frequent presenter at seminars and tradeshows as well as author of several articles discussing green cleaning issues, Sawchuk is recognized as a hands-on expert on creen cleaning chemicals and systems.

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