Cleaning Without Chemicals

The professional cleaning industry is currently embroiled in a debate about which surfaces actually need to be disinfected, as well as how best to disinfect when it is deemed necessary and how often.

But why are these issues so important?

We now know that many surfaces that have long been thought to be “hot beds” of contamination may actually need less attention simply because no one ever touches them.

On the other hand, other areas that may be overlooked or neglected may actually be much more likely to prove dangerous to human health.

As a result, many cleaning professionals are now calling for some old-fashioned common sense when it comes to hygienic cleaning and disinfection.

For instance, how much attention really needs to be paid to the inside of a toilet bowl? It is true that a number of pathogens--many of which are health-threatening--can be present inside toilet bowls, and that they therefore must be cleaned and disinfected regularly for both safety and appearance.

But since the only individuals who touch such areas are generally custodial workers using bowl-cleaning tools or wearing gloves, the risk of cross-contamination from a toilet bowl--especially to visitors to a park and recreation facility--is actually quite minimal.

For these situations, using a large number of powerful, costly, and potentially environmentally damaging chemicals and disinfectants may not be necessary.

On the other hand, some areas that usually receive only minimal cleaning and disinfecting attention--but which probably need considerably more due to the frequency with which they are touched--are chairs, tables, and high chairs used by children and other facility visitors.

These items may be used by scores of people in the course of a day, and can therefore become true “hot beds” for contamination.

They can often be a source of cross-contamination as well, since people touch these surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose, mouth, or other surfaces, spreading contaminants from one point of contact to another.

Unfortunately, custodial workers are often unaware of how seriously contaminated chairs, tables, and similar surface areas can become. The result is these items are typically cleaned sporadically and without proper cleaning systems, chemicals, or procedures necessary for effective hygiene.

Why It Matters

Why are these issues receiving so much attention now?

The use of conventional cleaning chemicals--specifically disinfectants--is coming under greater scrutiny at this time. Disinfectants, although they have served us well, are powerful chemicals that can be harmful to the health of cleaning workers, building users, and the environment.

Although Green disinfectants are available in some parts of the world, this is not the case in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightly regulates disinfectants, classifying them as pesticides, and will not allow disinfectants sold in the U.S. to be marketed as Green, indicating a reduced impact on the environment.

Disinfectants are evaluated by the EPA based solely on their effectiveness at killing specific pathogens and not the potential risk of harm to the user or the environment.

Some professionals believe that if we use common sense when choosing those areas that most need cleaning attention, we can limit disinfectant use and clean in a more environmentally responsible manner that still protects human health.

This issue has come to a head in many medical facilities, where custodial workers have been found to clean all areas with disinfectants on a frequent basis, even when they have been specifically instructed to clean only certain areas.

Disinfecting Without Chemicals

Although the EPA is currently revisiting its position on disinfectants--in and of itself an important breakthrough--it could take months or even years before Green disinfectants can be marketed in the U.S.

In the meantime, park and recreation administrators and their custodial workers have at least three other options when it comes to disinfecting surfaces without the use of chemical disinfectants.

The first is vapor technology. Steam vapor systems use no chemicals, but instead heat water to an extremely high temperature--from 150° F to as much as 300° F--which studies indicate is enough to kill quickly a variety of pathogens, including fungi, viruses, and even antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Vapor systems can be used on all types of surfaces, from tables and chairs to countertops and restroom fixtures.

For example, gymnasiums often use these systems to deep-clean workout equipment, specifically the vinyl coverings of the machines.

Sadly, however, these systems can be slow to work with and, with the current budget cutbacks and financial constraints facing many municipalities, some facilities can only afford to use these systems when there are specific public-health concerns impacting a facility or community.

Another option is the use of spray-and-vac, or "no-touch” cleaning systems.

Unlike vapor cleaning, these systems are very fast; in addition, recent tests conducted by an EPA-approved laboratory report that, when used properly, some systems can effectively sanitize surfaces (meaning they reduce the bacteria count by at least 99.9 percent) with water alone. (See sidebar.)

This is done by effectively removing contaminants from surfaces, usually requiring a machine with 500 pounds per square inch (psi).*

The third option is a new type of cleaning technology referred to as a flat-surface cleaning system. These systems combine a chemical-injection system, microfiber, and a window squeegee to wipe surfaces.

Although chemical cleaning agents can be used with these systems, studies by an EPA-approved lab also indicate they can be classified as sanitizing devices when used as directed, even when only water is used.

The Bottom Line

To protect both the environment and human health, park and recreation facility administrators and custodial workers must focus their cleaning energies on particular disease-transmission points.

However, this does not mean skipping the cleaning of toilet bowls just because they aren't touched. What it does mean is giving more attention to those high-touch areas that can become disease-spreading transmission points.

Further, although disinfectants play a significant role in keeping facilities clean and healthy, alternatives that use no chemicals are now available. Since these options are far safer for both people and the environment, they should be explored whenever possible.

* According to EPA regulations, in order to qualify as a sanitizing device, the no-touch system must be able to sanitize without chemicals, produce 500 psi (powerful enough to loosen and remove contaminants), and have a three-stage vacuum motor.

John Richter is the Technical Director for Kaivac, Inc. He is an author and presenter, discussing hygienic cleaning issues and related topics. Richter has both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, his emphasis being thermal sciences and fluid dynamics.


Disinfecting And Sanitizing: What's the Difference?

A disinfectant is a chemical agent that completely destroys all organisms on a surface within a set period of time, usually 5 to 10 minutes.

A sanitizer is a chemical or system that reduces the number of microorganisms on a surface to a safe level within about 30 seconds.

Sanitizing devices must be proven to reduce microbes on a test surface by 99.9 percent or more. This is typically accomplished by either removing the contaminants or killing them without chemicals.