You can’t see, smell, or taste them, but illness-causing germs are everywhere. With infectious diseases becoming more widespread, and the link between hygiene and health becoming clearer, people are purchasing more cleaning products than ever.

U.S. sales of industrial and institutional cleaning chemicals are expected to increase 3.9 percent per year to hit $8.2 billion in 2006, according to the Freedonia Group, an international industry research company. Of these chemicals, disinfectants and sanitizers will record the fastest growth, with sales exceeding $700 million by 2007.

The surge in popularity of cleaners, particularly disinfectants, is linked to people’s fears. Reports of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), monkeypox, Norwalk virus (the famous “cruise ship” illness), and other scary-sounding illnesses frequently top the nightly news.

“Increased media coverage about those illnesses has fueled public concern,” says Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and membership for The Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), Washington D.C. “The likelihood of us getting these diseases is rare. But the positive side of the news coverage is it reinforces the importance of cleaning. The bottom line is good hygiene equals good health.”

Although few people will ever contract an exotic disease, nearly everyone gets ill at least once a year due to poor cleaning habits. Knowing this fact can help jan/san distributors increase sales of cleaning products.

Costly Sick Days
Rare viral diseases, such as SARS and monkeypox, can be spread by person-to-person contact. These illnesses, however, are incredibly rare; they are not what people should worry about (nor are they what jan/san distributors should use as selling points).

The real threats are the common cold and influenza, foodborne illnesses and nosocomial (or hospital-acquired) infections. Consider this:

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 35 to 50 million Americans come down with the flu each flu season, which typically lasts from November to March. More than 100,000 people are hospitalized and 20,000 people die from the flu and its complications every year.

  • The SDA estimates that 76 million Americans get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die each year from foodborne illness.

  • One in 10 hospitalized patients, or about 2 million people a year, will acquire an infection after admission. These infections contribute to the death of nearly 90,000 hospital patients per year, according to the CDC.

There is a simple solution for reducing these illnesses and unnecessary deaths — good personal hygiene, especially regular hand washing. In this area, however, Americans are failing miserably.

Deluged With Dirty Digits
About 60 to 70 percent of people wash their hands after using the restroom, according to Dr. Chuck Gerba (“Dr. Germ”), professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Of those, only half use soap and just half of that half (about 15 percent) wash for the necessary 15 to 30 seconds.

Dozens of studies back up Gerba’s statistics. Nonetheless, Americans have a very different impression of their own behavior. In a telephone survey of 1,000 Americans, 95 percent claimed to wash their hands in public restrooms. While everyone boasts of their own good hygiene, they don’t believe anyone else’s claims. Ninety-one percent of respondents to another survey strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement, “Most people don’t clean their hands as often as they should.”

Even those who should know better don’t do a good job of washing up. In 34 studies of hand washing, healthcare workers washed their hands only 40 percent of the time, according to the Hand Hygiene Resource Center (HHRC).

Without frequent hand washing, a person can pick up germs from other sources and then infect himself by touching his eyes, nose or mouth.

Where Germs Lurk
A common misconception is that most illnesses are spread through the air by coughs and sneezes. In fact, 80 percent of infections are spread through hand contact.

For example, when a person infected with a cold or flu coughs or sneezes, the droplets can spread up to three feet. Anyone who touches the tainted surface and then touches his own mouth, eyes, or nose before washing his hands can become ill. Some cold and flu viruses can live for up to three days, leaving plenty of time and opportunity for a healthy person to come in contact with germs.

And germs are everywhere. The average kitchen dishcloth can contain 4 billion living germs, according to the SDA.

In a large study of offices, Gerba found that telephones were the No. 1 home for germs, followed by desks, water fountain handles, microwave-door handles, and computer keyboards. In fact, the average desk harbors 20,961 germs per square inch — 400 times more than the average toilet seat.

Another study found that 64 percent of people believed the public restroom doorknob had more germs than an ATM. They were wrong. Likewise, people were surprised to learn that outdoor portable restrooms are actually cleaner than picnic tables, shopping cart handles, escalator handles, and playground equipment.

Even doctors’ neckties harbor harmful bacteria. Researchers analyzed the neckties of 42 doctors, physician’s assistants, and medical students and the ties of 10 hospital security guards. Nearly half of the doctors’ ties contained bacteria that can cause such illnesses as pneumonia and urinary tract infections. The doctors’ ties were eight times more likely to contain bacteria than ties worn by the guards.

Good Riddance
Reducing the spread of illness is as simple as reducing the number of germs. The surest way to do that is by keeping hands — and surfaces — clean.

Cleaning with soap and water is a good first step; this removes dirt and many germs. For extra safety and peace of mind, however, many people want to also use an antimicrobial agent, such as a disinfectant or sanitizer. These products fight microbes, or germs, and have been in use for more than 50 years.

Regular cleaning products do a good job of removing soil, but only disinfectants or disinfectant cleaners (also known as antibacterial cleaners) kill all the germs that can cause many illnesses.

Bacteria levels decrease drastically (99.9 percent) if surfaces are treated with a disinfectant even just once a day, Gerba says. Likewise, alcohol-based rubs are more effective than soap in reducing the number of bacteria on hands, according to the HHRC.

“When you don’t use a disinfectant product, you just spread germs around and give them a free ride,” says Gerba.

Show and Tell To Optimize Disinfectant Sales

To maximize sales of cleaners, particularly of antimicrobial products, distributors need to be well versed in germ statistics.

“The more you can show the usefulness of these products, the better,” says Dr. Chuck Gerba, professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “I think it is the absence of technical data that makes selling hard. Disinfectants do reduce illness, you just have to put that information together to show people.”

Focusing on illness shouldn’t, however, mean resorting to scare tactics.

“I think taking advantage of people’s fears hurts our industry,” says Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and membership for The Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), Washington D.C. “But it’s not fear mongering to say that people can get sick from germs that spread on surfaces or to use scientific evidence to showcase the connection between hygiene and health.”

Come prepared with studies and statistics (like those highlighted in this article) to illustrate the benefits of your products, experts recommend.

“I have no interest in using scare tactics,” says Michael R. Martin, president and general manager, New England JanSan Inc., Bangor, Maine. “However, I’ve no hesitation in introducing our customers to the nature of the battle and the character of the enemy.”

And this enemy — germs — comes with staggering costs. The average adult takes 4.6 sick days per year. An estimated 50 million days of work and 60 million days of work are lost annually because of the common cold.

Sickness costs the U.S. economy an estimated $25.6 billion a year in lost or decreased worker productivity. It also costs Americans, who spend about $5 billion each year on their colds — about $3 billion on doctors’ visits and $2 billion on treatments.

Distributors can use this information to sell cleaners. The economic benefits of a good hygiene program are huge, particularly to schools and businesses.

“It’s a hands-down winner,” says Gerba. “You can reduce personnel absenteeism, and medical rates are often based on absenteeism rates. Unfortunately, it’s a hidden dollar value to people — it doesn’t show up in their cash register immediately.”

In addition to showing customers the cost benefits of your products, try showing them the effectiveness.

“This is a show-and-tell business,” says Blake Charles, general manager, Cajun Chemical & Janitorial Supply, Opelousas, La. “When we sell a product we actually go into the restroom and show them how to use it. We show them where germs can build up. People don’t think to clean inside a trash can or on pipes.”

Cleaning is not a new concept, of course. The same basic products have been around for decades. So how do you keep people interested in your products? Try giving an extra push to products that fit the Three Es: effective, efficient and expedient.

Sell businesses, schools, hospitals and other customers on the benefits of wipes and alcohol rubs. Wipes are available for everything from the microwave to the desk and are ideal for putting the power of cleaning directly in the hands of employees. Rubs and gels are also easy to use and can take the place of washing with soap and water when that option is not available.

“We’re still saying the same basic messages about encouraging good hand hygiene,” says Sansoni. “It’s just you have to find more creative ways to encourage it.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer.