“Antibacterial soaps may not be protecting your family! News at 11!”

The headlines seemed to say it all — in March, the Columbia State University School of Nursing published a study that showed families who used antibacterial cleaners exclusively for a year were just as likely to get fevers, stomach bugs, colds and the like as those who used regular cleaners.

To consumers, this study seemed to be a warning, that they were at best wasting their money, and at worst, they were putting their families at risk. To experts, however, this study didn’t really prove anything at all.

“They looked at cleaning products with antibacterial properties — but they looked at diseases caused by viruses. Of course the products didn’t work, but that point was kind of missed,” says Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication for the Soap and Detergent Association. “Antibacterials do what they say they’re supposed to — kill bacteria.”

Consumers and building service contractors alike can choose from a wider variety of cleaners than ever before, but that means there’s also a greater potential for confusion. New chemicals mean new terminology to learn; BSCs should build their vocabulary, so they know they’re using the right product for the job.

Sanitized for your protection
Much of the vocabulary confusion is due to the relatively recent influx of products that make antimicrobial claims, such as the antibacterial chemicals studied above. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can help. The EPA regulates all products that make antimicrobial claims under its pesticide-registration program, says Dave Deegan, public information specialist for the EPA,. This regulation helps standardize vocabulary, as well as ensure the product is safe and that it kills what it says it’s going to kill.

“It’s easy to determine what does what — just look at the label,” Deegan explains. “A registered product will have an EPA number on the back.”

The label also will state the product’s intended use. Not all antimicrobials are created equally — an antibacterial chemical will kill bacteria; antiviral and antifungal agents will kill viruses and fungi, respectively.

Also, the label will explain whether the antimicrobial is a “sanitizer” or a “disinfectant,” terms people tend to use interchangeably but that actually have quite different meanings, legally. Disinfectants are used on hard, inanimate surfaces and objects to destroy or irreversibly inactivate infectious fungi and bacteria but not necessarily their spores. Sanitizers, on the other hand, are used to reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, microorganisms from the inanimate environment to levels considered safe as determined by public health codes or regulations.

Also, a third category of antimicrobial product includes sterilizers (also called sporicides). These are used to destroy or eliminate all forms of microbial life including fungi, viruses, and all forms of bacteria and their spores. Contractors who clean specialized medical facilities may be asked to sterilize equipment, but most general cleaning will not be at this level.

Grappling with green
“Green cleaning” is another emerging trend that may lend itself to vocabulary confusion. Again, reading the label (rather than the marketing brochures) can help. The Federal Trade Commission requires that any environmental claims one makes on a label must be true, says Mark Petruzzi, vice president of certification for Green Seal, a Washington, D.C. based organization that identifies and promotes products that contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment.
“If they say something’s biodegradable, for instance, they must have some competent basis for making that claim,” he says.

The term “green,” itself, doesn’t have a legal meaning — anyone can use green dye, and use a picture of children running through a forest on their label. However, this may be changing — Green Seal, though not a regulatory agency, is emerging as an industry standard for green chemicals. The organization certifies a variety of products, and agencies are beginning to require or recommend certified products in their purchasing specifications, explains Petruzzi.

And, Green Seal standards are quite stringent, For an industrial or institutional cleaning chemical to be certified by Green Seal, it must meet 15 different standards (see box). Certified products can use the Green Seal logo on labels and marketing materials.

As new cleaning technologies emerge, even more new terminology will follow. Suppliers, associations and certification bodies all will play an important role in decoding the vocabulary of clean, but education starts simply — by reading the label.

What Does Green Mean?
Here are Green Seal’s 15 criteria for certified industrial/institutional cleaning products:
  • The undiluted product shall not be toxic to humans.
  • The undiluted product shall not contain any ingredients that cause cancer or are reproductive toxins.
  • The undiluted product shall not be corrosive to the skin or eyes.
  • The undiluted product shall not be a skin sensitizer.
  • The undiluted product shall not be combustible.
  • The product as used shall not contain substances that contribute significantly to the production of photochemical smog, tropospheric ozone, or poor indoor-air quality. The volatile organic content of the product as used shall not exceed one percent by weight for general-purpose and bathroom cleaners or three percent by weight for glass cleaners
  • The product as used shall not be toxic to aquatic life.
  • Each of the organic ingredients shall exhibit ready biodegradability.
  • The product as used shall not contain more than 0.5 percent by weight of total phosphorus.
  • The primary package shall be recyclable. Alternatively, manufacturers may provide for returning and refilling of their packages.
  • The product must be a concentrate, except for certain bathroom cleaners.
  • Manufacturers shall identify any fragrances on their material safety data sheets. Any ingredient added to a product as a fragrance must follow the Code of Practice of the International Fragrance Association.
  • The product shall not contain alkylphenol ethoxylates, dibutyl phthalate, heavy metals or ozone-depleting compounds.
  • The product manufacturer, its distributor, or a third party shall offer training or training materials in the proper use of the product.
  • Green Seal wants to discourage animal testing and will accept certain alternative tests for human toxicity, skin/eye irritation or aquatic toxicity.