Contaminating Or Cleaning

With the winter upon us, park and recreation managers are likely going to take additional steps to ensure that their facilities are not only clean but healthy as well. When it comes to small children, who will likely be using these facilities even more in the colder months, the more hygienically clean the facility, the less likely there will be cross-contamination issues, in which child after child becomes infected with the same illness.

However, before beefing up cleaning protocols, astute park and recreation managers are advised to first examine how mops, buckets, and cleaning cloths are used in their facilities. While it is well-known in healthcare facilities and among some in the professional cleaning industry that cleaning tools often contribute to the spread of disease, the cleaning staff in many park and recreation facilities may not be aware of this fact.

How can this be? What if staff members are properly using a powerful EPA-registered disinfectant on surfaces? What if they are properly and frequently cleaning mops and cleaning cloths and changing them regularly? While taking these steps can help minimize the spread of contaminants, they cannot prevent it. And when it comes to protecting children, minimizing the spread of disease may simply not be enough.

The Mop As Enemy

In 1971, a study was published in the April issue of Applied Microbiology. Written by John Westwood, Mary A. Mitchell, and Suzanne Legacé, all with the Ottawa General Hospital Department of Microbiology and Immunology, the study revealed “the massive spread of contamination throughout a hospital by the wet-mopping techniques in use. It was found that mops stored wet [as they usually are] supported bacterial growth to very high levels and could not be adequately decontaminated by chemical disinfection. The mopping cleaning procedures were in fact spreading gross contamination throughout the hospital.”1

However, mops are not alone. While the above study focused only on mops and traditional floor-cleaning procedures, other studies, such asHousehold Cleaning and Surface Disinfection: New Insights and Strategies,” put the spotlight on another culprit: the cleaning cloth. This is a more recent study, conducted in 2004, and came to a similar conclusion. In this case, it was reported that in situations where the cleaning procedure fails to thoroughly eliminate contamination from one surface and then the same cloth is used to wipe another surface, “the contamination is transferred to that [new] surface.”2

Although one of these studies is 10 years old and the other nearly 40 years old, there is little or no impact on what the results would be today. In fact, due to globalization, there may be greater concern today about the spread of disease from cleaning tools than in 1971. Most cleaning professionals are still cleaning floors and wiping down counters using the same tools and very often even the same chemicals used decades before. 

However, in recent years there has been progress in the professional cleaning industry.

Twenty-First-Century Cleaning

What is to be used instead of the mops and cleaning cloths like those used for decades? There are several options.

Let’s take cleaning cloths as an example. Simply using color-coded microfiber cloths can help stop the spread of disease. Microfiber is far more effective at removing contaminants than traditional terry cloth towels, but it is actually the color-coding system that helps stop the spread of disease. With this system, a red cloth, for example, is used to clean toilets and urinals, and a white or blue cloth to clean desks and common area counters. Not using a red cloth (which was used to clean toilets) on a white cloth area, such as a reception counter, helps stop the spread of contaminants.

Also, some cleaning cloths can be folded into as many as eight quadrants. One surface is cleaned using one quadrant. The worker then folds the cloth and uses the second quadrant to clean the next surface and so on. Each quadrant is numbered to help prevent errors.

When it comes to floors, try to stop using mops and traditional buckets entirely. They have served the industry well, no question, but it’s not worth risking the disease they can spread. Options here start with the use of trolley buckets. With this system, cleaning solution is dispensed directly onto the floor. No mop is inserted into the bucket, so the solution stays clean and fresh.

As to the actual cleaning of the floor, one option is to deck-clean it with a brush and then use a wet/dry vacuum, which can be attached to the trolley bucket to remove the moisture and soils. Related options are to use spray-and-vac systems to clean floors. One study found the no-touch system to be 60 times more effective at removing bacterial contamination than using mops.

The bottom line here is that protecting human health is a serious matter and with SARS, MSRA, and other outbreaks, even more serious today. Judicious park and recreation managers must take extra precautions in protecting the health of the people using their facilities, and when it comes to cleaning, these extra precautions mean leaving old tools and cleaning methods behind and looking into new cleaning systems and technologies to address the needs of a 21st-century world. 

Robert Kravitz is a freelance writer for the professional cleaning and building industries.  He may be reached at

1Westwood J, Mitchell M, Legacé S. “Hospital sanitation: The massive bacterial contamination of the wet mop.” Applied Microbiology. April 1971.

2Exner M, Vacata V, Hornei B, Dietlein E, Gebel J. “Household cleaning and surface disinfection: New insights and strategies.” Journal of Hospital Infection. 2004;56.