Ten years ago, people rolled their eyes and yawned whenever Susan Fairbank talked about how cleaning products relate to health and wellness. “I would mention the importance of using safe, organic chemicals, or keeping the air clean in a building, and they’d dismiss me as a tree-hugger,” she says.

But something extraordinary has happened in the sanitary supply industry since the early 1990s. Researchers, scientists and independent evaluators have managed to convince the majority of jan/san professionals that cleaning products and procedures really do affect the health of building occupants — sometimes drastically.

“Now that we have concrete numbers and statistics to work with, people are paying attention,” says Fairbank, who is vice president of marketing for The Fairbank Corp., a 57-year-old jan/san distribution company based in Puerto Rico.

Breathe Easy
Recently, cleaning researchers have compiled statistics that show the relationship between indoor air quality (IAQ) and asthma. In certain parts of the United States — and the world — building managers are paying closer attention to the effects of asthma.

Throughout the United States, thousands of people suffer from asthma and allergies, and they’re an even bigger problem among Puerto Ricans, says Fairbank. “Puerto Ricans comprise only 11 percent of all Hispanic Americans, but they represent 34 percent of all asthma-related deaths [in the United States],” she says.

In recent years, jan/san distributors and manufacturers have increased their commitment to fighting allergens, dust and mold — some of the most nefarious obstacles to obtaining healthy IAQ levels.

Throughout the 1990s, HEPA filters (filters that are certified to remove dust particles as small as .3 microns) were seen as add-ons that were incorporated into the designs of only a few vacuum manufacturers. Today, HEPA filters come standard on most vacuums, says Fairbank. “Today, people are just much more sensitive to pollens and dust — and the mold issue isn’t going away — so HEPA filters take most of that out of the air when a carpet is being vacuumed,” she says. “It’s a way that the cleaning industry can prevent respiratory illnesses.”

Battling Bacteria
Mainstream magazines and newspapers, like Newsweek and The New York Times, have devoted a lot of ink in the past year to the antibacterial debate that has spilled out of the jan/san industry and into the consumer products arena. On one side are those who advocate antibacterial products; on the other side are those who fear that antibacterial products actually make existing bacteria more resistant, increasing the proliferation of illness and disease.

For distributors like Victor Winik, owner of All Service and Supplies, Boca Raton, Fla., the issue isn’t about antibacterial cleaning products — it’s about antibacterial cleaning programs.

“If you use the same antibacterial products over and over again on the same surfaces, then you increase your chances of aiding the bacteria by helping it become immune to those cleaners,” says Winik. “The right way to clean is to regularly change your cleaning program — even change your cleaning chemicals — so that the bacteria can’t build up a resistance to one particular antibacterial product.”

One reason that interest in the antibacterial debate is piquing is the recent problem of flu outbreaks in areas where vaccines are not readily available. All Service and Supplies serves such an area in the Southeast. “Here in Florida, people are really concerned about the flu, so we’re selling greater amounts of antiseptic soaps and antibacterial cleaners than ever before,” says Winik. “We’re also selling more gloves than we have in the past.”

“You don’t really get sick anymore from people sneezing on you,” says Fairbank. “You get sick from touching various surfaces.” Festering bacteria contributes to the spread of illness in normal circumstances, but it is of special concern during times of natural disaster.

Throughout the southeastern United States and islands in the Caribbean, last year’s barrage of hurricanes did more than damage buildings — they also impeded basic hygiene.

“We got hit by all four hurricanes, and soap and water were really hard to come by,” says Fairbank. “So we put hand-sanitizing dispensers in all the classrooms that we supply, and their absenteeism actually decreased significantly.”

Keep Them There
Whenever August Supply Inc., a distributor in Burlingame, Calif., visits schools and office buildings, one topic is frequently mentioned: sick days. “It certainly comes up when we’re working with those kinds of buildings,” says Bruce Schilling, the company’s owner. “The California schools get a per diem, which means that they receive supplements to their budgets depending on how many students are in school.”

Illness prevention is especially important in kindergartens and elementary schools, where younger students are more susceptible to getting sick, adds Schilling. “We were supplying a kindergarten last year, and they just had a lot of illness the year before we came in — so many of the kids were staying home sick,” he says. “We introduced some new cleaning strategies and products, like no-touch paper dispensers, that made a huge difference and increased attendance dramatically.”

Although corporations don’t receive a per diem, nothing affects their bottom lines like employee sick days. “When a distributor talks to a facility manager about limiting the number of sick days, it’s definitely a sales strategy — it’s one of the major things that separates good distributors from bad ones,” adds Schilling.

In the case of an office building, employees who are sick have a negative effect on productivity, so facility managers spend a lot of time talking with cleaners and distributors about illness-prevention strategies, says Winik.

“If people are home sick, then the company is losing money, and the major reason that people get sick is cross-contamination,” he says. “Germs are spread from person to person, or from surface to person. We can’t control the other people very well — aside from promoting hand washing and the use of hand sanitizers — but we have a lot of power over what happens on those surfaces.”

Right Products, Right Places
Today, one of the most common strategies for preventing cross-contamination is assigning specific cleaning supplies and chemicals to specific areas of a facility. For example, foodservice cleaning supplies should never be used in other parts of a building and vice versa, says Fairbank.

“As a distributor, it’s critical that we provide specialized detergents and supplies for the foodservice and kitchen areas, because those areas have entirely different needs with entirely different bacteria,” she says. “When you’re working with food — especially meats, like chicken — on your countertops, then you need a special cleaner to kill that bacteria.”

And the kitchen isn’t the only area that should receive special attention from distributors. “A lot also depends on the buildings you’re cleaning. Hotel rooms have certain issues and bacteria that other rooms in other buildings don’t have,” adds Fairbank. “Distributors have a great opportunity to help prevent illnesses by putting the right area-specific cleaning program in place for their customers.”

In addition to using specialized chemicals and supplies for specific areas, distributors need to help their customers organize their storage of supplies efficiently.

“We sell to a lot of cafeterias, especially at the senior centers that are common all over Florida, and we give those buildings a special one- or two-day training seminar that explains how to keep cleaning materials separate to avoid cross-contamination.”

One common strategy, which has surfaced in the marketing campaigns of more than a few manufacturers, is to color code cleaning products, so that they remain in their assigned areas. In an elementary school, for example, foodservice cleaning products might be blue, classroom cleaning products might be green, and bathroom cleaning products might be red, etc.

And, of course, no-touch dispensers and appliances can easily decrease the spread of illness by limiting instances of cross-contamination (see Washroom Care).

If distributors are concerned about preventing illnesses, then equally concerned end users will keep coming back for more business — in part because they won’t be home sick.