Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most of us have been dealing with the immediate threat. That's the priority. Demand and disruptions in the supply chain have led to shortages in disinfectants and packaging, amongst many other challenges. We're still in the thick of it as of this writing, and it's becoming clear that cleaning professionals will have their work affected in significant and permanent ways. Today, we want to talk about the future. The use of disinfectants is a must right now. There's no way around it. But those of us in the professional cleaning industry have to think about the long-term impact of disinfectant use, and how to combat their harmful effects.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Disinfectant Use?
Surface Effects: During the COVID-19 pandemic, a wider variety of surfaces are being disinfected, and some cleaning workers are working with new, unfamiliar products. Of course, proper training is always crucial. But be sure to test disinfectants on a surface before using them across your facility. Although most are tested on typical surfaces, the wide variety of options for doors, doorknobs, desks, countertops, and the other surfaces you clean means there's no way of anticipating all the materials, finishes, and coatings that are used in modern facilities. Beyond these short term effects, disinfectants can affect surfaces long-term.
- Touch-screens: A study tested different disinfectant wipes on touchscreens, and found that discoloration and damage occurred over time with three out of the five products tested.1
- Plastics, Rubber, and Adhesives: high-concentration alcohol-based disinfectants can weaken adhesives, damage seals, and cause some plastics to swell or harden. Sodium hypochlorite can be corrosive to rubber and polyurethane.2
- Stainless Steel: Strong acids, ammonia, and bleach can corrode stainless steel. Pitted or damaged areas not only look unsightly but can become shelters for contaminants.3
- Other Metals: Sodium hypochlorite can be damaging to metal surfaces such as aluminum and brass. 2
As always, only use disinfectants when necessary, and choose disinfectants whose components aren’t as abrasive and reactive. Be sure to wipe after the dwell time listed on the label, for the disinfectant to achieve kill claims. Also, be sure you’re always cleaning first. Cleaning with a low-residue, low-toxicity cleaner can help remove any residue left behind by a disinfectant as well as prep the surface for proper disinfection.
Health Effects: In a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control1, three typical components of disinfectants were studied: bleach, quaternary ammonias (quats,) and hydrogen peroxide.
- Bleach: Known to cause respiratory issues including asthma, and small amounts of chloroform are released during its usage. 4
- Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: Studies have shown long-term damage to DNA and lowered fertility rates in lab animals. Studies have linked some quats with dermatitis, rhinitis, and an increase in asthma. 4
- Peroxides: When used at the concentration for disinfection (3% or less), hydrogen peroxides are low risk even if accidentally ingested, and the main reported issue was eye irritation. In fact, the San Francisco Asthma Taskforce recommended using peroxide disinfectants "for bleach-free disinfecting based on not having a known association with asthma, not causing any nasal irritation, and being a registered EPA disinfectant with a short dwell time.” 4
Applying disinfectants can be harmful to those who clean—cleaning workers have the highest rates of occupational asthma.1 But it can also affect building occupants. Studies have shown that volatiles in disinfectants can stay in the air 20 minutes after cleaning.4
When possible, avoid disinfectants that have components with known ill effects. Always be sure to use proper PPE when working with disinfectants. Be sure, after the appropriate dwell time, you wipe off the remaining disinfectant. This can help reduce exposure to occupants. Some disinfectants, like our own Critical Care, have a “residual kill” claim. Wiping the disinfectant off after the dwell time doesn’t affect this.