Currently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forbids the marketing of disinfectant products as "environmentally preferable" because they are designed to kill microbes, giving them a pesticide designation. As a result, building service contractors have been known to stop using disinfectants altogether when green cleaning. But that is not the right answer.

Disinfectants play an important role in removing disease-causing microbes from indoor environments. They are a valuable tool in creating healthier buildings, says Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group LLC in Bloomington, Ind.

With no green certifications for disinfectants available, it's hard for eco-conscious BSCs to identify the safest options. However, clarity may be on the horizon as the EPA recently launched two pilot programs to certify disinfectants. One program will allow qualified disinfectants and sanitizers to bear the EPA Design for the Environment (DfE) logo. The other will allow manufacturers to make approved factual claims about their products, such as dye-free or scent-free.

The Dawn of a New Disinfectant

Disinfectants and sanitizers have a long history of being classified as pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). FIFRA institutes federal control of pesticide distribution, sale and use, and requires pesticides used in the United States to be EPA registered. Registration assures proper product labeling and promotes use in accordance with specifications designed to prevent unreasonable environmental harm.

This statute mandates products intended to kill pests be regulated as pesticides. Disinfectants and sanitizers fall under the umbrella of this definition because they kill microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses.

"An all-purpose cleaner would not be regulated, but anything that says it kills bacteria or funguses, would be," Ashkin explains.

Treating all pesticides equally has posed more than a few challenges to the cleaning industry, adds Bill Balek, director of legislative affairs for ISSA, Lincolnwood, Ill. With states and cleaning organizations grappling with how to deal with disinfectants in green cleaning programs, the need for the EPA to change its stance has never been more acute, he says.

The EPA's policy frustrates innovation as manufacturers put off investing millions of dollars in environmentally preferable disinfectants because they cannot inform purchasers of their efforts. At the same time, BSCs are requesting greener disinfectants for cleaning programs. Due to the lack of EPA guidance, Balek points out, the marketplace has filled the void by defining greener disinfectants and sanitizers on its own, often creating inconsistent messages across the industry.

"Fortunately, the EPA now realizes these issues," says Balek. "It realizes its current policy has made it difficult to select environmentally preferable disinfectants and sanitizers."

In July 2008, the EPA responded by forming the Work Group on Comparative Claims, as part of the Pesticide Policy Dialogue Committee, and tasked organizers with forging a policy that would recognize greener disinfectants and sanitizers. In December 2009, the EPA officially launched its two pilot programs.

In order to gain approval to add the DfE logo to disinfectant labels, products must undergo reviews by both DfE and the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs. The departments are looking for products that are of the lower acute toxicity for pesticides, says Michael Hardy, enforcement coordinator in the EPA's Antimicrobials Division.

There are four categories for acute toxicity classification and the lower the number, the more dangerous the product. Disinfectants classified as Toxicity Class I or II — these products have labels indicating "Warning" or "Danger" — will be unable to bear the DfE logo.

"We don't want any product with a personal protective equipment (PPE) requirement to be part of these pilots," says Hardy. "For example, you shouldn't have to wear a respirator to apply the product."

The pilots are a work in progress, Hardy adds, and will be tweaked as needed. At the end of the program (currently slated for May 2013), Balek notes the EPA has the discretion of pulling the plug, continuing the programs in their existing forms, or operating them with additional amendments and revisions.

It all depends on how the pilots affect the market, says Hardy, who explains that if surveys and focus groups find people falsely believe a DfE logo on a disinfectant means it's completely safe, the EPA will halt the program. But if users understand that this labeling means these products are lower in toxicity, do not require PPE, and will not burn their skin or eyes when used correctly, the pilots will continue.

BSCs should start seeing products bearing the DfE logo within the first six to nine months of 2010, says Ashkin.

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis. Portions of this article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Housekeeping Solutions, a sister publication of Contracting Profits.