The rush to disinfect is well-intentioned. Executives want to protect employees while abiding by U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines (and to avoid liability). Pre-pandemic, corporate cleaning staffs typically “freshened” lobbies every three hours, sanitized restrooms every four hours and cleaned other areas at night, said Rich Feczko, national director of systems, standards and innovation at Crothall Healthcare, which cleans hundreds of hospitals.
That pace has now accelerated. “Our frequencies have ramped up in public places like lobbies and elevators to 6-8 times per day,” said Feczko. Restrooms are cleaned every two hours. “Before the pandemic, clients were happy if their trash was emptied and vacuum marks were in the plush carpet,” said Jill Frey, owner of Ohiobased Cummins Facility Services. Now, customers ask for sanitization and disinfection. “This is a hazardous proposition,” said Dr. Claudia Miller, an immunologist, allergist and co-author of Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes. “Cleaners tend to go in with hugely toxic chemicals. We’re creating another problem for a whole group of people, and I’m not sure we’re actually controlling infections.”
Cleaning companies are selecting disinfectants from hundreds on List N, the monthold compendium of products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to kill the novel coronavirus. Those chemicals have passed tests to show they’re effective against the pathogen, but “this doesn’t mean that they have been approved because they’re considered safe with regard to human health,” said exposure scientist Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Limited studies, including on rodents, have raised concerns that some might increase risk of neurological and dermatological problems, as well as respiratory ailments like asthma, or have notable reproductive effects. And while those studies don’t necessarily mean the disinfectants are harmful to humans, environmental health experts contend that risks are rising sharply with the increase in exposure. They also note that there are alternative ways to kill off the virus that carry less potential risk. “I don’t know that I would be using potent disinfectants in an elevator, rather than something like 70% rubbing alcohol,” said Quirós-Alcalá. (The rubbing alcohol option is approved by the CDC). For a small percentage of workers, disinfectants pose an immediate risk, said Claudia Miller.
Up to 10% of people—including asthmatics, migraine sufferers, those with allergies or immune disorders or suppressed immune systems—may experience symptoms such as memory loss, trouble concentrating, mood swings, irritability, headaches, seizures, nausea and vomiting, she said. Repeated or extended exposures can lead to neuro-immune sensitization and intolerances to common chemicals, foods and drugs. “That becomes a nightmare for us to deal with as physicians,” Miller said.
The cleaning industry has been actively applying new technologies to combat the coronavirus. Merrick Group, a Pennsylvaniabased industrial cleaning company now pivoting to disinfect schools, businesses and hospitals, uses a proprietary process that propels a combination of isopropyl alcohol and quaternary ammonium onto surfaces using a CO2 gun. The no-wipe chemical dries within a minute, and the EPA has pronounced it safe for some food-grade and hospital surfaces.
“If we can spray it in a Hershey’s food plant or at a hospital, we can certainly spray it on a school bus,” said Merrick Group President Bob Gorski. The health care sector, however, is proceeding with caution. “We’re letting the science guide us,” said Geoff Price, co-founder of Oak Street Health, which treats 85,000 patients in 56 clinics. “There’s a lot of new stuff out there, and I think companies are just grasping at different things to throw at the problem, and it’s not always fact-based.
Existing technologies do the work if they’re applied correctly.” Oak Street, for example, cleans its patient transport vans with wipes. In the meantime, commercial landlords can’t wait for science, and may be incentivized to choose the cheapest methods, said Michael Silver, chairman of commercial real estate group Vestian. “If a business comes up with a great plan, and the landlord agrees, then who’s paying for it?” Silver said. “You wonder why anyone would want to go back to work to begin with.”