The Green Way to Infection Control
Over the past 10 years, the world has faced several health scares. For instance, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) started in Hong Kong, spread across the globe, and resulted in more than 8,000 people losing their lives. The H1N1 virus developed in 2009, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by the time it had run its course there were more than 60 million cases, about 274,304 hospitalizations, and nearly 12,500 deaths. And in recent years, we have had to deal with Ebola and, today, the Zika virus.
In all these situations, cleaning professionals have been on the front lines, helping to minimize the spread of these diseases. And if and when another pandemic occurs, we likely will be called in and at the front lines once again.
If that happens, we must keep in mind lessons learned. For example, especially in regards to the SARS pandemic, often too many and too powerful cleaning solutions were used to stop the spread of the disease, sometimes doing more environmental harm than good. A lot of this was panic driven. In the future, cleaning professionals should be aware that there is a different way to address a public health scare.
For the specific purpose of not overusing disinfectants or sanitizers or using them when not needed, cleaning professionals can implement a Green Infection Prevention program. Many of these steps could be incorporated in dealing with any public health concern, but these in particular are designed to help reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment when dealing with infection prevention.
Among the steps such a program would include are the following:
Get the facts. To prevent another panic and avoid using or the overuse of powerful cleaning agents such as disinfectants that can have a negative impact on the environment, always turn to credible sources for information about public health concerns. One of the most reliable is the CDC.
Establish a chain of command. Another way to avoid a panic and the overuse of powerful cleaning agents is to ensure that one person, either a building administrator or cleaning professional, is responsible for staying informed regarding the public health concern and for instructing and implementing the response. This will involve determining what cleaning solutions to use, how to use them, and what protective clothing cleaning workers should wear in an emergency, such as gloves and protective eye gear.*
Increase touch-point cleaning. One of the lessons learned from SARS is just how many surfaces—touch points—people are in contact with in a facility just about every day. In addition to what we usually think of, such as light switches and doorknobs, we can add elevator buttons, vending machine controls, remote control devices, railings, copy and fax machine controls, straps and railings on public transportation, ATM screens and keypads, coffeepot handles. . . .the list goes on and on, and each of these surfaces should be cleaned. By increasing cleaning frequencies of touch points, we may be able to reduce the use of sanitizers and disinfectants.
Clean in stages. In a health scare, there typically are three stages that affect cleaning. The first stage is when there is the potential for a public health concern in a community. With a Green Infection Prevention Program, there would be no need for sanitizers or disinfectants at this stage unless they are already in use for other purposes. The second stage is when there is a public health scare in a community. And the third stage—the most critical stage—is when the pathogen is infecting a specific property or properties. At each stage, cleaning frequencies are increased, and at stage two, sanitizers and disinfectants are introduced.
There is no question that sanitizers and disinfectants are necessary in a stage two or stage three situation. What we need to realize is that these are powerful cleaning solutions and, in the United States, no EPA-registered disinfectants are Green certified. Because these products can have a negative impact on the user and the environment, we need to take the following precautions:
- Dilute the products using an auto-dilution system to eliminate overuse.
- Make sure the disinfectant is designed to kill the specific pathogens causing the health concern.
- Consider the use of disinfectant alternatives; for instance, the CDC reports that hydrogen peroxide can destroy some bacteria, viruses, spores, yeasts, and fungi. It must be diluted properly and allowed to dwell on the surface for one or more minutes.
All of these measures are key to a Green Infection Prevention plan. But most important is to not panic. When we panic, we make mistakes, and when it comes to cleaning—especially during a public health emergency—there’s no room for mistakes.
*Some viruses and diseases can spread via transmission to the eye.