If we look in the rearview mirror, we might see the pandemic moving further behind us. If true, and hopefully it is, then this is the perfect time to determine what we have learned from this devastating experience. Many industries and sectors are now looking for the many takeaways of the pandemic, and this is undoubtedly true for building owners, facility managers, and those in the professional cleaning industry.
It’s becoming clear that we did some things right, helping to keep people healthy, but we may have done some things wrong.
Analyzing the past 18 months is necessary for many reasons. For those that think COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century happening, like the Spanish Flu of 1918, there may be some unfortunate news in store for you. Because that is not what some medical experts believe.
“We tend to think of pandemics and epidemics as episodic,” says Allan Brandt, a historian of science and medicine at Harvard University. “But we are living in the COVID-19 era, not the COVID-19 crisis. We [can’t] look back and say, ‘That was a terrible time, but it’s over.’ We will be dealing with the ramifications of COVID-19 for decades.” 1
Let’s turn our attention to one of the most important things that we have learned from the pandemic, which was also a takeaway from the 2002-03 SARS pandemic in Hong Kong.
At the time, Hong Kong building owners, facility managers, and cleaning workers used powerful disinfectants, including bleach, to help stop the spread of the disease. They used these disinfectants on literally everything, from elevator buttons to toilets, believing the pathogen that causes the virus lived on these surfaces. The extensive use of bleach was so noticeable that some residents said they could smell bleach for months after the pandemic was over.
What we know now is that they overused bleach and disinfectants in Hong Kong, and often used them where they were not needed. The same we now see is true with COVID-19. In fact, a new term has evolved to describe this situation: “indiscriminate disinfecting.”
A study conducted in May 2021 references the problems indiscriminate disinfecting can cause. According to the study, despite demonstrating a beneficial role [for] the control and prevention of COVID-19, there are crucial concerns regarding the large-scale use of disinfectants and sanitizers, including the side effects on human and animal health along with harmful impacts exerted on the environment and ecological balance.2
We might believe this overuse of disinfectants may not be as much a problem in Canada as it is in the U.S. This is because green-certified disinfectants are available in Canada, but not in the U.S.
These green disinfectants have been tested and proven to work effectively, but with a reduced impact on the environment compared to traditional disinfectants. But we must remember this is true only if the product is used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
However, when overused, improperly diluted, or used where unnecessary, the environmental benefit of the product diminishes. This happened during the pandemic.
Did we need disinfectants at all?
As we have been discussing, there was a rush to disinfect after SARS and again with COVID-19. Not only are we beginning to realize that we overused these powerful chemicals indiscriminately, but it is also coming to light that we may not have needed them at all.
While initial studies indicated COVID-19 lives on surfaces for several days, those studies have come into question. For instance, a study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, suggests that the virus, in many cases, only lives a few hours on surfaces, not a few days as originally believed.
Quoted in the article is Emanuel Goldman, a professor of microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics at New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers University. He suggests that while laboratory tests find the virus can live several days on surfaces, these tests “have little resemblance to real-life scenarios.”
Goldman believes this is because these tests were conducted using large samples of the virus and placed in a controlled environment that does not allow the virus to dry out. That is not a real-world situation.3
Cleaning for health
If one of our crucial cleaning takeaways is that we have been using far too many disinfectants than necessary during the pandemic and may not have needed them at all, then what should we do now – and into the future – to help keep building users healthy?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it may all come down to good old effective cleaning: Normal routine cleaning with soap and water will decrease how much of the virus is on surfaces and objects, which reduces the risk of exposure.
In other words, that is effective cleaning using the right tools, methods, and systems. We should note, this typically does not include many traditional cleaning tools such as mops, buckets, or even cleaning cloths. As these tools are used, they become contaminated, spreading germs and bacteria, and not removing them.
Instead, what is proving to be a more effective option is the use of what ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association, calls spray-and-vac cleaning systems, more commonly known as no-touch cleaning systems.
This cleaning system uses a standalone machine to do the following:
- Apply fresh water and cleaning solution, including disinfectants if called for, to all surfaces to be cleaned.
- Allow the cleaning solutions to dwell, or set, on those surfaces. Typically, this is accomplished by first applying the chemical solution to several surfaces and fixtures throughout the area to be cleaned.
- Pressure rinses these same areas, again using the machine. This provides agitation, necessary in all forms of cleaning to loosen and remove soils.
- Vacuum up the moisture, cleaning solution, and with it, soils and contaminants.
As to its benefits, a study conducted several years ago found that when cleaning floors using a traditional mop and bucket on one set of test floors and a spray-and-vac cleaning system on another, the cleaning efficiency — ability to remove pathogens from surfaces — was nearly three times better than those floors cleaned with mops. Further, after using an EPA-registered disinfectant on the floors, the mopping process still left 35 times more residual bacteria than the spray-and-vac cleaning system.
The pandemic should be viewed as a major wake-up call. It told us that facility managers and cleaning professionals must continually evaluate how cleaning is performed and if the systems we use are effective. Further, if new disinfecting technologies were employed during the pandemic, it might also be time to question their use.
Whether needed or not, what we do know is that effective cleaning is necessary. Effective cleaning using the right tools and cleaning systems should help us keep building users healthy and facilities open, now and moving forward.
Matt Morrison is communications manager for Kaivac, developers of the no-touch cleaning system and other cleaning tools and products needed for effective cleaning. He can be reached at email@example.com
- “Past Pandemics Remind Us Covid Will Be an Era, Not a Crisis That Fades,” by Gina Kolata. The New York Times, October 12, 2021.
- “The role of disinfectants and sanitizers during COVID-19 pandemic: advantages and deleterious effects on humans and the environment.” Dhama K, Patel SK, Kumar R, et al. Published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research, May 15, 2021.
- “Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by Fomites.” The Lancet, published online July 3, 2020.