Healthcare facilities often find themselves in a very difficult situation when it comes to the use of sanitizers and disinfectants. Regulations require that these powerful cleaning agents, which must be registered and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), be used in specific areas of a medical facility.
However, a key problem that arises with the use of sanitizers and disinfectants is that, as effective as they may be at removing or killing potentially harmful germs and bacteria, they are some of the most environmentally harmful products used in professional cleaning.
However, according to a new study by the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI)--a nonprofit, science-focused cleaning research group under the auspices of ISSA*--there are cleaning technologies available that achieve results similar to those of using sanitizers and disinfectants but by using just plain water. These processes eliminate any of the potentially harmful environmental impacts of sanitizers or disinfectants.
Sanitizers, Disinfectants, and Log Reduction
However, before delving into the research, some explanations are called for:
- Sanitizers: EPA-approved sanitizers do not eliminate 100 percent of all bacterial organisms, fungi, or viruses on a surface. When used properly, however, a sanitizer is required to reduce the bacterial count by 99.999 percent.
- Disinfectants: An EPA-registered disinfectant used properly must eliminate or kill all microbes and organisms listed on its label. These organisms are not limited to bacteria but could include viruses and fungi as well.
- Log reduction: This may be a new term to some facility managers but is very important for our purposes. A log reduction is a mathematical term used to show the relative number of microbes eliminated from a surface by cleaning, sanitizing, or disinfecting.
Log reductions can be determined by use of ATP surface-monitoring systems.** Log reductions are explained in the following way:
- A 1-log reduction means there is a 90 percent reduction in the number of germs and bacteria found on a surface.
- A 2-log reduction ups this percentage to 99 percent.
- A 3-log reduction, 99.9 percent.
- A 4-log reduction, 99.99 percent.
- A 5-log reduction is a 99.999 percent reduction in the number of germs and bacteria found on a surface.
If tests reveal that a cleaning process has achieved a 5-log reduction, for instance, it means that if there were 100,000 pathogens on a surface before cleaning, that number has been reduced to just 1, accomplishing the same results if not better than when using a sanitizer.
Safe but Effective Cleaning Technologies
The results of the study appear to indicate, according to CIRI, that safer and more hygienic cleaning processes can be just as effective as the use of chemicals for sanitizing and disinfecting a surface when the emphasis is shifted from killing microorganisms to more specifically their removal. The effective removal of these pathogens can be accomplished by integrating a number of components in the cleaning process, such as:
- Spray-and-vac (no-touch) cleaning systems, which are used to pressure-wash surfaces and loosen debris and contaminants
- Squeegees to remove contaminants and solution from surfaces above floor areas
- Wands connected to a wet-vacuum system for complete solution and contaminant removal
Interestingly, the CIRI report noted not only that traditional cleaning tools—sprayers, wipe cloths, mops, and buckets—are less effective at contaminant removal than are the alternative methods listed above but also that the soils they leave behind may actually inhibit the effectiveness of the cleaning agents used and become food sources for remaining microbes.
What Does All This Mean?
More and more medical facility managers are looking for ways to clean and maintain their facilities in a more environmentally responsible manner. Aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of using sanitizers and disinfectants, facility managers are placing these cleaning agents under greater scrutiny and using them more sparingly and only where necessary.
Use of a cleaning process that can accomplish the same sanitizing and disinfecting results of these cleaning agents but without the negative environmental impact is viewed as a major milestone in accomplishing environmentally responsible cleaning. Although further tests are necessary, the CIRI study indicates that medical facility administrators may soon have more tools and cleaning processes available to clean effectively while significantly reducing cleaning's impact on the environment.
Matt Morrison is communications manager at Kaivac, manufactures of no-touch, professional cleaning equipment and related tools and products.
*ISSA is the oldest and largest cleaning association in the world and is based in the Chicago area.
**ATP refers to adenosine triphosphate bioluminescence, a molecule found in all living cells. ATP can be detected on surfaces and, if found, measured. The test can act as a red flag to indicate that harmful microorganisms are present.