No one will be able to stop infectious outbreaks from happening at a facility. But the right people, plans and products can stop the outbreak from becoming catastrophic, time consuming and costly. The way to do this is for building service contractors to review their processes, procedures, training, and communication with clients and workers, and know what they are using for products and equipment — and then take a less toxic approach.

Instead of relying on two-in-one cleaner/disinfectant-type products, janitors should use cleaners to clean and sanitizers and disinfectants to kill. Two processes, two products, two steps.

For cleaners, the place to start is third-party certified products by Green Seal, UL or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These products have toxicity review to ensure carcinogens, reproductive, neurological and other major groups of toxins are not present in the formulation. The certifications also have the products run through standard soil removal testing to prove they work, as well as being less toxic.

Cleaners should not be highly fragranced or dyed, if possible, because they can be irritants, sensitizers, as well as have neurological toxins in them.

For the disinfectant step, it's a little trickier because disinfectants such as chlorine bleach and quaternary ammonium compounds (quats), as well as safer alternatives hydrogen peroxide and hypochlorous acid (HOCL), kill things. The EPA considers these pesticides because they kill, so there are always hazards to using them. Therefore, they cannot be considered green. However, they can be less toxic.

Being EPA-registered doesn't make a product green. It has nothing to do with its effect on the environment. EPA registration for sanitizers and disinfectants means the EPA has approved the use of a product based on the directions and applications listed on the label. This approval is based on the product testing manufacturers have provided showing their efficacy. This is why it is absolutely imperative to use chemicals as directed on the label. It is what they are tested for.

Being registered doesn't mean all EPA-registered sanitizers and disinfectants are made the same. Some can cause primary asthma, some exacerbate respiratory issues like COPD, some are more irritating or sensitizing, and others do damage to materials in facilities. Many make workers eyes run, skin burn, or cause headaches or dizziness, which can lead to sick days and workers' compensation claims.

What is important to know is that all EPA-registered products go through the same assessment by the EPA. Therefore, it is not marketing or smoke and mirrors on what these products kill or don't kill as they have all been tested and reviewed. The question is, is the active ingredient toxic and will it cause harm while working to kill pathogens?

Chlorine bleach, quats and HOCL all kill pretty much the same pathogens. But, chlorine bleach will take color off of fabric, burn eyes, skin and respiratory tracts if not used properly. It has a pH of up to 13.5 percent, which leads to many of its harmful and hazardous qualities. Chlorine bleach mixed with other compounds like ammonia can produce deadly gasses.

Quats are also effective at killing many things. But when used improperly, it is also part of a chemical class that can exacerbate asthma.

Hydrogen peroxides with peri acetic acid, or PAAs, in them are also listed as primary asthmagens, according to the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics.

Hypochlorous acid is a chlorine product that kills the flu, cold, MRSA, Norovirus and C. diff, and is EPA registered like chlorine bleach and quats. However, it has a neutral pH of about 6.8 and is made in our bodies as part of our immune systems. It leaves no residue and has no nonsynthetic fragrances and dyes.

Picking products is just part of the solution. The cleaning process matters as much as the chemicals used.

If janitors clean well with a general cleaner, they can remove 80 or 90 percent of soils and germs from a surface. If for example, a surface started with 1 billion germs, after cleaning it would be down to 100 million germs. That's good reduction, but there are still a lot of germs left. Therefore, janitors still need to disinfect or sanitize and kill that last 10 percent. But now, using less harsh chemicals makes the process less toxic. This protects indoor air quality, workers, clients and public health.

Heidi Wilcox is an applied microbiologist, presenter, educator and trainer in the cleaning industry. She is also the president and founder of Wilcox EVS, a consultancy specializing in "cleaning and disinfecting for health." She can be reached at Learn more at

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