Disinfectants are essential for protecting public health, but are also hazardous. Most common disinfectants can cause asthma, many are corrosive (burn) to eyes and skin, pose hazards to aquatic life, and some cause cancer or reproductive harm.
To complicate matters, purchasers cannot tell whether the products really work, since the targets are microscopic organisms. Plus, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has historically prohibited disinfectant manufacturers from marketing products as “green” or promoting them based on claims of reducing impacts on health or the environment as they feared this could result in product misuse increasing exposures to product users, occupants and the environment.
But help is on the way.
Over the past years, EPA has organized a work group consisting of technical experts, children’s health and environmental advocates and others to sort through the issues to help purchasers buy “greener” disinfectants with confidence.
Due to the serious nature of these products, EPA has been taking a deliberate approach to deciding which ingredients would be deemed acceptable and what “label claims” they would allow to be made. Working with EPA’s Design for the Environment Program, a number of active ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, citric acid and lactic acid have been approved for a “pilot program” along with a number of “label claims” such as biodegradability and non-animal testing claims.
Unfortunately the cautious approach has led to only a few manufacturers and products participating in the pilot with most being ready-to-use consumer-type disinfectants that are typically cost prohibitive for schools and universities. But more products are in the pipeline.
More recently the City of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment along with the Responsible Purchasing Network published a comprehensive report on safer disinfectants. This project with the assistance of EPA’s Design for the Environment Program reviewed health hazards, environmental impacts, germ-killing claims, surface incompatibilities, and other factors for 11 common active ingredients (those that kill the organisms), 33 representative disinfectant products and 24 sanitizer products. This “alternative analysis” also considered non-chemical options such as improved cleaning practices and the use of various tools, such as microfiber mops and electrolyzed water devices.
The highest scoring products contained hydrogen peroxide, lactic acid, caprylic acid or citric acid as active ingredients. The study recommends active ingredients and specific products for general disinfection as well as for special purposes such as locker rooms, bloodborne pathogens, and stomach flu which are important issues in school or university setting.
Other recommendations include:
• Buying products as concentrates instead of ready-to-use or pre-diluted formulations.
• Using “closed-loop” dilution systems, which automatically mix chemicals to the correct strength while keeping concentrates inaccessible to users.
• Cleaning surfaces well, which can reduce germs by 99% or more without the use of disinfectants. Using microfiber mops and cloths can dramatically improve the effectiveness of cleaning.
• Limiting disinfectant use to high skin contact areas such as door knobs or sinks can also reduce products use without compromising public health.
Still more considerations and recommendations include:
• Selecting disinfectants that are pH neutral (close to 7) to reduce the potential for eye and skin irritation.
• Selecting disinfectants that contain low or no-VOCs (volatile organic compounds such as solvent- and fragrance-free) to reduce compounds that cause asthma and other respiratory problems.
• Rewarding manufacturers who provide complete ingredient disclosure for both active and inert ingredients such as surfactants (detergents), builders and fragrances.
• Providing training for workers on proper dilutions, application and dwell-times for disinfectants.
While both EPA and San Francisco / Responsible Purchasing Network initiatives are changing the market for disinfectants, schools and universities can accelerate progress by evaluating current products and following the recommendations offered by these programs.
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.