Chemistry Matters: What’s in Your Cleaning Solution?

Striking a balance between safe and effective seems complex, but by drawing on basic chemical knowledge, the decision of what to use, how much and when is simplified.

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In the rush to re-open businesses, having the capability to control the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been a major focus. However, the post-pandemic panic to ramp up operations has created another risk—the use and overuse of some dangerous disinfectants.

The challenge is real. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, increased toxic chemical exposure risks are likely due to increased use of disinfectants in the home and workplace. These risks are currently rising with most states entering Phase III recovery. This study is a wake-up call to supply chain and logistics professionals to become informed about the best disinfectants to use for each particular application and to prevent harmful exposures to the workforce and end user. Selecting the right product, using it correctly and storing it safely after use should be the main objectives when fighting the invisible pathogens around us. 

Striking a balance between safe and effective seems complex, but by drawing on basic chemical knowledge, the decision of what to use, how much and when is simplified.

Start from strength

It almost goes without saying that one should always use disinfectant products in accordance with label instructions and store the products safely. Selecting the right product for the job involves understanding a bit of the chemistry of both the biocide (germ killer) in the product as well as the surfaces to be treated. 

Biocides are found in all disinfectants. Most act by disrupting the cell membranes of the organism to be killed, such as viruses and bacteria. Some, like bleaches (hypochlorite or peroxide for instance) literally oxidize and burn through the cell walls, destroying the organisms in the process. This is a very aggressive approach and is highly effective on hard, colorfast surfaces that are not damaged by bleaches. 

However, bleaches can be very harmful to porous surfaces such as fabrics, carpets and even human skin. Anyone who has accidentally bleached a load of brightly colored clothes into oblivion can attest to the effectiveness of bleach when it comes to destroying colored fabric. 

Quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) and alcohol-based disinfectants also are also commonly used to control harmful bacteria and viruses. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages. Examples of quaternary ammonium compounds include benzalkonium chloride, alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides and alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride. 

Alcohol disinfectants can be effective, but alcohol evaporates very quickly, limiting its effectiveness. In general, disinfectants must stay wet to remain active on the surface so alcohols that evaporate quickly are generally less effective than water-based disinfectants that take longer to evaporate from a surface.

To complicate matters further, the level of effectiveness is based on dwell time of the chemical on the surface. There is a common misconception that using a spray and wipe technique will clean and disinfect. The ability to train maintenance staff and enforce protocols adds yet another consideration for facilities professionals – one that can have negative effects on those tasked with applying chemicals.

Focus on safety

There are dual focuses when weighing the safety of any particular disinfectant—safety from applicator standpoint and safety from employee standpoint. 

Beyond destroying dyes in fabric, bleaches can pose a health hazard. All bleaches are harmful or fatal if swallowed and can cause serious and sometimes permanent burns if splashed on the skin or permanent blindness if splashed in the eyes.

Hypochlorite bleaches are generally caustic and corrosive and must be handled with care and never mixed with other cleaners or chemicals of any kind. Only clean water can be used to dilute bleaches for disinfectant use, otherwise dangerous reactions can occur, liberating chemicals such as toxic chlorine gas. 

It is the chlorine gas liberated on contact with surfaces that kills organisms, but it is also this chlorine gas that can pose a real exposure hazard for the user. When chlorine is inhaled, it attacks the cells lining the lungs and destroys them in the same way it kills mold, bacteria and viruses. The damaged cells in the lungs die and release fluid causing what doctors call chemical pneumonia. This is always harmful and if the exposure is severe enough, it can prove fatal. There are studies that indicate that even low exposure to cleaning products over a long period of time can negatively impact lung function similar to the damage done by smoking. 

Quats have long been known for their eye, lung, and skin irritancy hazards and can be harmful if swallowed, cause eye and skin burns, and are harmful if inhaled. Quats are also very toxic to aquatic life.  This latter point is particularly important when disposing of unused disinfectant down drains and thereby into the municipal water treatment systems.   

Interestingly, in the United States, quats are often used in cleaners with no health warnings, while in the European Union, quats are considered hazardous pesticides and are heavily regulated. This is due, in part, to concerns that quat overuse may lead to development of resistant bacteria or “superbugs.”

Chemistry that cleans safely and effectively

In comparison to bleaches and quats, botanical solutions exist in the marketplace that are both safe and effective. Bioesque for example, is a widely used mild water solution of neutral pH with no eye or skin hazards. Its active ingredient thymol, is a natural monoterpenoid phenol, found in oil of thyme, and extracted from Thymus vulgaris (common thyme). Thymol is low in toxicity to humans, animals and the environment. 

For some of these products, no rinsing is required after use, so they are suited for use in restaurants, grocery stores and food processing facilities where food is prepared or stored. 

To apply these botanical solutions, personal protective equipment is required to avoid exposure to pathogenic bacteria and viruses within the treatment area, not due to the product itself. When searching for a botanical product, look for NSF-registered products certified as antimicrobial.

Botanical disinfectants that are classified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “Category IV” means that no signal words, no precautionary statements, and no first aid statements are required on the label. They are also readily biodegradable, posing no immediate or long-term risk to humans or the environment. Further, they are not regulated as dangerous goods by either U.S. DOT or IATA for shipping purposes, nor subject to the reporting requirement of California Proposition 65, which lists chemicals which cause cancer or reproductive harm.

When it comes to effects on hard or porous surfaces, the EPA has approved certain botanical disinfectants for disinfection of hard, non-porous surfaces such as metal, rubber, painted or varnished surfaces, glazed ceramic, glazed porcelain, glazed tile and glazed enameled surfaces, glass, sealed or varnished wood, sealed marble, steel, stainless steel, chrome, brass, aluminum, sealed concrete, sealed fiberglass and many plastics, including polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene, polycarbonate and PVC. 

Selecting the right disinfectant for the area to be treated and understanding how to use it and store it safely is absolutely necessary to protect everyone along the supply chain from both harmful bacteria and viruses as well as the effects of the disinfectants themselves.