A vector image asking whether something is a myth or fact

Contributed By Laurie Sewell, president and CEO of Servicon

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are vying to be among the first to announce their “new and improved” virus-fighting cleaning programs. This haste has led to confusion over cleaning terminology, misguided cleaning practices and protocols, and even false claims. The question is, as our industry emerges to a new status as gatekeepers in infection prevention, are we going to sit back and collectively shake our head — as we did with greenwashing years back until government was forced to step in? Or will we do the right thing by correcting, clarifying, educating and staying true to our calling to protect human health?

Up in the Air Terminology

A video recently released by a major airline promoting its response to the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrates how its crew is “cleaning and sanitizing” all surfaces inside its planes. What, exactly, is meant by sanitizing? 

Originally, sanitizing meant using a sanitizer. Since the pandemic, however, the term has morphed to mean spraying with a disinfectant to sanitize, but not allowing the full contact, or “dwell,” time required to disinfect.

Under normal conditions, cleaning then sanitizing by either “definition” might be enough to keep the inside of an aircraft pathogen-free. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), New England Journal of Medicine and other top sources, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) can remain viable on certain surfaces for as long as seven days. Moreover, the only way to kill the virus is to use a disinfectant approved by the EPA to be effective against SARS-CoV-2. So in planes, where there is a high potential for passengers having been exposed to the virus within the last seven days, sanitizing may not be enough. 

Another top airline proudly depicts its dedicated crew performing “enhanced cleaning procedures” using an unmarked spray bottle ( a definite “No!”) to disperse a disinfectant, then immediately wiping the surface with a cloth. Unfortunately, prohibiting dwell time, the “swipe and wipe” technique does not disinfect.

These types of errors can pose a health flight risk, and it is not just airlines missing the boat. 

A recent USA Today headline reads, “Cleaning a floating petri dish: How Is a Cruise Ship Sanitized After a Coronavirus Outbreak?”  The article is about the Diamond Princess cruise ship where 712 people tested positive for COVID-19 and 13 died.

Granted, the ship was quarantined for nearly three weeks, so the cleaning and sanitizing was conducted past the seven day limit of SARS-CoV-2's viability on surfaces. However, given the high infection rates, and with workers going in and out, if the ship was sanitized — and not disinfected — passengers made aware of the difference might understandably hesitate to climb aboard. 

The USA Today article goes on to describe how the “sanitation company” has been active throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, “aiding sanitation efforts in hospitals, fire departments, arenas and airports.” Companies attempting to safeguard hospitals and other facilities with confirmed, ongoing exposures to COVID-19 by sanitizing alone could explain how we ended up with a pandemic in the first place.

Deep Confusion

The confusion between sanitize and disinfect is by no means the only example of misused cleaning terminology and practices. 

Just prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, all kinds of facilities, including schools, government buildings and manufacturing plants, were closed for “deep cleaning.” Similarly, many companies preparing to reopen after the shutdown are marketing their deep-cleaned facilities. What does that actually mean? 

Unfortunately, deep cleaning can have almost as many different definitions as the number of cleaning companies claiming to perform it. So what did the custodial team at your child’s school do when it deep cleaned? Chances are it depends on which school your child attends, and you can only hope those cleaning it understood what was needed. 

Then there’s antibacterial. Antibacterial formulas do not kill viruses, period. In fact, the CDC and other reputable sources highly recommend washing your hands with plain soap and water whenever available over the use of antibacterial products to best prevent the spread of any virus. 

And what about the term “decontaminate”? The term used to stand for a level of cleaning reserved for medical, pharmaceutical, labs and other critical environments, with the best companies meeting or exceeding ISO 14644 1 and 2 standards and providing compliance guarantees. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, however, graphics of workers decked in various stages of personal protective equipment (PPE) abound with promises of (undefined) “total decontamination.” 

Vague pledges aren’t the worst of it. One company’s website states, “general disinfection has no effect on SARS-CoV-2, which causes the COVID-19 disease.” The same page offers the company’s decontamination services “using EPA-approved SARS-CoV-2 solutions that eradicate the contamination.” 

Again, the only “solutions” known to kill SARS-CoV-2 are disinfectants approved by the EPA to be effective against the virus. So what the company is really saying is that it chooses not to use the correct disinfectant in its disinfection program, so it can upcharge for its “decontamination” offering.  

Foggy Promises

Pandemic posturing is not limited to services. COVID-19 has led to an explosion of new technologies aimed at infection prevention. Many are truly innovative and further this quest and may even be better for the environment. Unfortunately, however, in some companies’ rush to make a buck, many products have hit the market without qualified testing. Other products make unsubstantiated claims that can promote a  potentially dangerous false sense of security. 

For example, it seems wherever you look there are pictures of cleaners spraying disinfectant with foggers. However, in many cases, the mist is so fine that it does not thoroughly coat the surface and evaporates too quickly to disinfect. Meanwhile, many are convinced spraying chemicals that can affect indoor air quality long afterwards might not be a good idea for the environment or humans, especially those with existing breathing problems, such asthma, bronchitis or COVID-19. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently issued a warning that “spraying disinfectant even outside can be dangerous to human health.” 

Another product headline announces the launch of “Anti-Bacterial Coatings to Address COVID-19 Outbreak.” Unfortunately, again, antibacterial formulas  do not kill viruses. Therefore, this type of surface would simply allow viruses to live — and even thrive — much like a protective glass top on a coffee table may protect the surface under it, but does nothing to prevent the build-up of dirt, bacteria — or viruses — on top. 

Coming to Terms

The public at-large may not yet understand what can seem like slim differences between industry terms. However, as specialists in cleaning and infection prevention, it is up to us to make sure everyone on our staff clearly understands their definitions and the best practice procedures behind them. It is also up to us to educate and stop the flow of misinformation. 

Good doctors know antibiotics do not work against viruses, such as the flu, and they explain this to their patients. Surely most have had to do so more than once. Some patients, believing an antibiotic was needed, may even have been upset at being told they would not be given one. 

As the experts in our field, we must take the same steps to educate our customers and the public on the differences between our products and services, guiding them toward what works and away from what does not — even in cases where they may not agree and doing so may not seem to be in our immediate financial interest. It is the right thing to do. It also is how we will retain our newly emerging position as vital first responders serving on the frontline of infection prevention. 

Click here to read Servicon's own definition of various cleaning terms.