Is There a Green Way to Disinfect?

There is no question that cleaning professionals will encounter situations in which sanitizers or disinfectants are necessary. However, we must always realize that these are very powerful cleaning agents that, while they have served us well, can produce unfortunate, even harmful, results.  Products Image

We know that these products can be injurious to the user as well as the environment, especially if handled improperly, and this makes them difficult to use when a Green Cleaning program has been implemented in a facility.  Studies also indicate that disinfectants, and more specifically the overuse of disinfectants, can actually be making bacteria stronger.  The result is that increasingly more powerful disinfectants may be necessary to kill these pathogens.

However, in the United States, there are no EPA-registered disinfectants certified as Green. While the EPA works with the states to allow for disinfectants to be Green-certified through the Design for the Environment program, these products will not be available until later this year, if then.

Fortunately, there are alternatives that cleaning professionals can consider that have a reduced impact on the environment and have proven to be quite effective at eliminating germs and bacteria.  But before we explore these options, we need to mention four important things:

  • First, a disinfectant or sanitizer should only be used if and when absolutely necessary. Historically, disinfectants have been over used, especially in medical locations. These products are designed to kill pathogens, so by their very nature they can be potentially dangerous to users, building users, and the environment, especially if appropriate precautions are not taken.
  • Before using a disinfectant or a disinfectant alternative on a surface, in most cases the surface must be cleaned first.       Generally, we must view the use of disinfectants and disinfectant alternatives as a two-step process: first clean the surface to remove soils and then apply the disinfectant to kill pathogens, germs and bacteria. This is so often overlooked as is allowing proper dwell time.
  • There are situations where a disinfectant is legally required to be used, such as in certain areas of a hospital.       In these cases, regulations must be adhered to and an alternative to an EPA-registered disinfectant should not be substituted.
  • Finally, if we must use an EPA-registered disinfectant, we must make sure the disinfectant selected kills the germs and bacteria we need to address. For example, if there is concern about swine flu (H1N1), check the label to ensure that the kill claim listed on the label indicates the product is designed to kill this virus.

Regarding disinfectant alternatives, at the top of our list of products that have a reduced impact on the user and the environment are those manufactured with hydrogen peroxide. These products are now used in many schools and many areas of medical facilities.  They are safer to use and are proving to be quite effective.

Another entirely chemical-fee option is the use of steam vapor.  We are referring to steam vapor machines made for use in professional cleaning and even then, not all systems are suitable. Their germ-killing ability is dependent on various factors but primarily the temperature created by the system.   These systems should heat water to 250 °F or more to be effective.  In one study, it was shown that a steam vapor system was able to kill viruses, fungi, and even antibiotic-resistant bacteria within about five seconds.*

A third non-chemical option is the use of spray-and-vac systems.  While the developer of these systems does not recommend their use without cleaning solutions or disinfectants, independent laboratory tests have found that these cleaning systems can be effective at removing many germs, bacteria, and pathogens from surfaces.

There are also ways cleaning professionals can use traditional disinfectants and still have a reduced impact on the environment.   First step: read the label.  Select a disinfectant that does not contain ingredients such as Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) or octylphenol polyethoxylates (OPEs). Look for a disinfectant with a more neutral pH value, closer to 7.

Consider the dilution ratios, referred to as parts per million (PPM), stated on the product labels. The higher the PPM, the safer the disinfectant is to use.   We discussed kill claims earlier; look for a broad spectrum disinfectant, that is, one with a very broad range of kill claims. This can help keep the number of powerful disinfectants used in a facility to a minimum.

* “Steam Vapor: A Green Disinfectant,” by Dr. Benjamin Tanner, Cleaning Maintenance Magazine, September 19, 2010.