Preventing a Double Whammy to the Environment

Preventing a Double Whammy to the Environment

The increase in excessive use of disinfectants could be detrimental to the environment and the treatment of the virus. Here's how you can use disinfectants safely and smartly for the environment.

According to a June 2020, report released in Bloomberg Law, “businesses across the U.S. have begun intensive COVID-19 disinfection regimes [that may be] exposing workers and consumers to chemicals that are largely untested for human health.”1

When the seriousness of the pandemic reached U.S. shores earlier this year, it caused building managers to have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to cleaning in general, especially with the use of disinfectants. To protect building users and keep facilities and business operating, disinfectants were used everywhere and anywhere.

The same thing happened in Hong Kong nearly twenty years ago when the SARS virus began to spread. But now there are concerns as COVID-19 resurfaces that building managers, along with cleaning professionals, will return to using disinfectants randomly and excessively.

This could have a double whammy impact on the environment. We can understand why, back in March, with its considerable chaos and uncertainty, there was a rush to disinfect. But now, as a second resurgence evolves, we need to stop and make sure this uncontrolled use is not repeated. As the Bloomberg report indicates, this may cause more harm than we realize.

So, what do we need to know about disinfectants and the use of these products to ensure we use them wisely, with the protection of the user and the environment in mind?

The first thing we need to understand is that disinfectants, at least in the U.S., are not green certified, nor are they allowed to be called green certified. For a product to be green certified, it means it has been independently tested and verified and meets specific criteria and standards by a leading green certification organization such as GreenSeal, UL/Environment, EcoLogo and others.

While the criteria can vary somewhat, these organizations essentially look to see if the ingredients used in the product are from renewable sources, do not contain petroleum byproducts, are safer to use than traditional products or release few if any volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

In recent years, these certification organizations also look to see if the product is packaged using recycled or reused materials to promote sustainability.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluates disinfectants in the U.S. Their key consideration is the effectiveness of the product based on the manufacturer’s claims. If the disinfectant passes the necessary tests, it is labeled a “registered disinfectant,” which is all the EPA believes we need to know. In other words, the product meets EPA guidelines and standards and does what the manufacturer says it is designed to do.2

But there is quite a bit more we do need to know about the use of disinfectants. For instance, even if they are not environmentally safe—especially if misused—are there at least ways to use them so that they have a reduced impact on the environment?

Fortunately, according to Michael Wilson with AFFLINK, a distributor membership organization for the professional cleaning and related industries, there are. He suggests the following:

Use only where necessary. Unfortunately, cleaning professionals in the past, and certainly now with COVID, are using these products on far too many surfaces where they are not needed. Because we know disinfectants in the U.S. are not green certified, overusing them increase the chances they can harm the environment as well as the user. Plus, overusing disinfectants can cause pathogens to develop immunities to them. Just as doctors are careful prescribing antibiotics because some germs and bacteria have now become immune to them, the same situation is developing with disinfectants.

Use only where legally required. Most often, this will refer to the use of disinfectants in medical surroundings. “Because disinfectants sometimes have legal consideration, make sure you are aware of the legal restrictions of using product in certain environments,” adds Wilson. “This is especially true in medical facilities.”

Look for disinfectant alternatives. Some of the alternative disinfectants used in hospitals include hydrogen peroxide and oxygen bleach. Oxygen bleach, when dissolved in water, produces a chemical reaction that releases hydrogen peroxide and sodium carbonate. These alternatives are safer for the environment than traditional disinfectants or chlorine bleach. Disinfectants manufactured with citric acid and acetic acid also have a reduced impact on the environment.

Use the correct disinfectant. If we must use a disinfectant, it is important to select the right one. The labels on disinfectants list the kill claims, that is, the pathogens the disinfectant should be able to kill if used properly. As for COVID, the EPA has created the N-List, which lists all disinfectants proven to kill the pathogens that cause the virus.

Use the disinfectant properly. Before using a disinfectant, surfaces must always be cleaned first. Cleaning removes soils from a surface so that the disinfectant can work more effectively.

Using electrostatic sprayers. Electrostatic sprayers are being used in all types of facilities because of the pandemic. Essentially, they apply a disinfectant mist over a wide area. The mist is given an electrical charge so that it attaches to surfaces as it is used. Once on those surfaces, the disinfectant is designed to go to work, killing germs, pathogens and infectious viruses.

“Correct usage makes all the difference,” adds Wilson. “Surfaces must be cleaned before the mist is applied, and the mist needs to wet the surfaces sufficiently to allow for adequate dwell time for the disinfectant to work.”

Furthermore, sometimes the mist lands on the soils rather than directly on the surface, thus reducing the disinfectant’s efficacy. When the mist dries too quickly, the disinfectant does not have enough time to kill pathogens. In both situations, the environment may be exposed to harm.

Consult with a knowledgeable distributor. There has never been a greater need to work with a distributor familiar with the use of cleaning solutions and disinfectants to fight infection. Some distributors now have access to online technologies that help them work together with their clients, finding those disinfectants that will work most effectively in their facilities.

According to Wilson, these technologies help prevent trial and error purchasing, “resulting in cost savings and ensuring managers select the right products to protect the health of building users. This both saves money and helps minimize the impact of these products on the environment.”

Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have frequently heard the expression “we are all in this together.” For building managers focused on protecting the health of building users and the environment, another phrase is called for: do not tackle it alone.

1Arianne Cohen, "Rush to Disinfect U.S. Offices Has Some Health Experts Worried," Bloomberg Law, June 15, 2020,

Over the years, the EPA has opened the door to allowing disinfectants to be green certified in the U.S. However, that has had limited success at this time.

About the Author

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry.

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