Cleaning, SARS, and Ebola

“Cleaning, SARS, and Ebola,” was recently published in Environmental Leader:

The “cleaning” alarm bells are ringing related to Ebola in the United States, Europe, and of course, Africa. As serious as this is and as critical as it is to find ways to stop the spread of this deadly disease, we must ensure that the steps we take when cleaning facilities are effective, necessary, and protective of the environment wherever and whenever possible.

I say this because when the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic began in Hong Kong more than 10 years ago, there were reports that people could smell chlorine bleach in the air for days once cleaning steps were taken to halt the spread of the disease. This was the result of dramatically increased cleaning using chlorine bleach in virtually all types of facilities. Cleaning professionals were using these products to clean and disinfect just about everything from floors and ceilings to the controls on elevators.

While chlorine bleach has been recognized as a surface disinfectant since the mid-1800s, and it certainly has served us well in many ways for both cleaning and disinfecting, it cannot be denied that chlorine bleach—especially in excessive amounts—can prove harmful to building users, cleaning professionals, and the environment. Some traditional cleaning products formulated with chlorine bleach have also been known to cause skin and eye burns, irritate the respiratory tract, trigger asthma attacks, and even produce a poisonous gas if mixed with other products, specifically any product containing ammonia. And with Hong Kong citizens reporting that they could smell bleach in the air for days during the SARS outbreak, we can assume too much of these products were being used and most likely being used in places and for cleaning surfaces where they simply were not needed.

Related to this, there was also a dramatic increase in many parts of the world of disinfectant use during the SARS outbreak. These disinfectants may have proved effective, but once again, were likely overused. Disinfectants, as necessary as they can be, can also have detrimental health and environmental impacts, especially if overused or used improperly.

Because SARS was one of the first global public health scares in modern times, and because it moved around the world so rapidly,* there was an almost-understandable overreaction to the outbreak. And when it came to cleaning, this often resulted in an overuse and misuse of chlorine bleach, disinfectants, and other traditional cleaning products.

With Ebola, we must try not to repeat these mistakes and take a more reasonable approach—cleaning to effectively stop the spread of this deadly disease without undue negative impact on people and the environment. However, concern is mounting that history will repeat itself. We are already witnessing school closings for extensive cleaning in Texas even though there have been no Ebola cases reported by anyone in these schools. Most likely the same chemicals and disinfectants used and overused to fight SARS are now being used and overused in these schools as well.

So when it comes to effective cleaning to stop the spread of Ebola, what can we learn from the SARS outbreak a decade ago?

First, understand what we are dealing with. According to Robert Murphy, Director of the Center for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the schools in Texas are overreacting, treating Ebola as if it was as contagious as a cold or the flu. Ebola spreads only through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood or saliva.

If the decision has been reached to increase the use of bleach, disinfectants, and other chemicals in a facility, make sure these products are diluted as instructed by the manufacturer. There often is a belief that more is better when it comes to killing germs and bacteria; this is rarely the case. If these products are over-concentrated, they can actually damage surfaces as well as pose health-risks for users.

Building administrators and housekeeping professionals must decide where to use these powerful chemicals and cleaning agents and where they are not needed. First ask: Is there a verifiable concern about Ebola in our facility? If not, more thorough cleaning but not necessarily more use of chlorine bleach or disinfectants may be all that is called for.

If there is a concern, bleach and disinfectants should definitely be used to clean restrooms, food service areas, and “high-touch” surfaces. And unless there is a specific concern about Ebola or some other serious disease in a facility, they are probably not needed to clean desks and counters and related surfaces unless they have come in contact with blood or saliva.

Also, consider sanitizing alternatives such as hydrogen peroxide that have far less impact on the environment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are published reports that “ascribe good germicidal activity to hydrogen peroxide and attest to its bactericidal, virucidal, sporicidal, and fungicidal properties.” While in may not apply in the case of Ebola, there are even studies indicating that some cleaning procedures have proved to be effective at removing harmful germs and bacteria from surfaces with little or no chemical at all.

When it comes to cleaning to stop the spread of Ebola, we must take a calm and reasonable approach and always keep the environment in mind. Overreaction to anything in life—including fighting this dreadful disease—is rarely good.

Stephen P. Ashkin is Executive Director of the Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning” and is coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.


*In a matter of months beginning in early 2003, SARS spread to 29 countries, killing nearly 10 percent of the people it infected. More than 8,000 people worldwide became sick with SARS, and according to the World Health Organization, 774 died.