This may prove to be a very difficult winter, especially for school-age children, due to expected outbreaks of swine flu (H1N1) in many parts of North America. Although prevention of the disease invariably leads to immunization, cleaning professionals in schools, offices, and large public facilities can take specific steps to help control the spread of H1N1, or at the very least prepare for it.
Flu viruses, including H1N1, can survive up to 12 hours on paper or cloth, up to 48 hours on nonporous surfaces like most commercial countertops, doorknobs, and desks, and as much as 72 hours on moist surfaces, which help to keep the illness-causing virus alive. This means that in an improperly cleaned facility, the H1N1 virus can remain alive, potentially infecting others through cross contamination, for up to three days.
Preventing this does not necessarily require more thorough cleaning, although that certainly is important, as much as more hygienic cleaning. Hygienic cleaning means incorporating procedures that have been scientifically proven to remove or kill bacteria and helps stop the spread of disease.
Among the steps that should be incorporated:
Clean the surface first. Unless the disinfectant is labeled as a "disinfectant/cleaner," the surface must be properly cleaned first before the disinfectant can be used to effectively kill germs and bacteria.
This is critical and why traditional cleaning methods don't always achieve disinfectant levels. They don't truly remove the soils and bacteria. Chemicals may vary in effectiveness, not all cleaning methods are alike, making the process critical.
Always use EPA-registered disinfectants with verifiable "kill claims" that include flu viruses (specifically Influenza A for H1N1). See the "spectrum of action" on the product's label or manufacturer's instructions.
Adhere to manufacturer's dwell time recommendations. Disinfectants typically must dwell (sit) on surfaces for five to 10 minutes to perform effectively before being wiped away.
Focus on high-touch areas. Some of the most common transmission points for viruses are elevator buttons, doorknobs, chairs, telephones, vending machines, and commonly touched surfaces such as tables and countertops.
When using traditional methods, Change mops and cleaning cloths frequently. Studies indicate that mops, wipes, and cleaning cloths become soiled very quickly and can actually spread the germs and bacteria they are intended to remove.*
Although it has been suspected for some time, the need for frequent changing of mops and cleaning cloths has only recently been scientifically proven and is an important edge in the fight against cross contamination. Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, has determined that some cleaning cloths actually spread contaminants as they are used, and this increases as they become soiled.
This has been demonstrated through the use of ATP (adenosine triphosphate bioluminescence) rapid-monitoring technology. These hand-held systems replace swabs and Petri dishes when it comes to detecting surface contaminants and can detect microorganisms and contaminants on surfaces within approximately 15 seconds.
Additionally, because of growing concerns about the spread of H1N1 and other diseases, some cleaning experts now believe that using traditional cleaning systems - cloths, mops, and sprayers - should be discarded. Dr. Jay Glasel, founder of Global Scientific Consulting, LLC, Farmington, Connecticut, suggests the use of spray-and-vac cleaning systems instead. These systems do not require the touching of surfaces. Instead, a no-touch cleaning machine applies chemical solution to surfaces to be cleaned; areas are then rinsed and a wet-vac system vacuums up solution along with contaminants.
Comparing cleaning results on tile and grout floors using traditional cleaning methods and spray-and-vac systems, Glasel found "for removing bacterial contamination, the data shows that the spray-and-vac [system] is 60 times more effective in reducing bacterial contamination than conventional method[s] for typical commercial floors."
What to Do in an Emergency
The steps discussed here are designed to help prevent an outbreak of H1N1, and they should definitely be incorporated should an outbreak of the disease occur. However, the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) suggests the following emergency steps also be taken:
Increase the cleaning of high-touch areas from one to three times daily.
In busy locations, place disinfectant "bombs" in targeted areas and specific rooms; these systems emit a dry disinfectant meant to cover surfaces over a wide area.
Place hand sanitizers throughout the facility. A hand sanitizer does not clean hands; however, it serves as an interim measure to help stop the spread of contaminants.
The professional cleaning industry can play a key role in minimizing the impact of H1N1. In fact, some feel the cleaning industry should be placed under the umbrella of the healthcare industry because of the significant role it can play in fighting disease.
*Study results were presented June 3, 2008, at the 108th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology [ASM] in Boston.