Some disinfectants are greener than others
Disinfectants are a common element of most facility maintenance programs. They are vital for the health and safety of humans as they kill and prevent the spread of potentially deadly viruses, bacteria, fungi and other germs. This truth makes them a necessity for facilities of all types, including green buildings. While the efficacy of a disinfectant should always be the number one priority for selecting one cleaning product over another, some disinfectants are made “greener” than others.
Buyers Be Aware
By definition, cleaning is the act of removing dirt from a surface. Generally, this is accomplished using water, a cleaning agent, and/or some form of agitation to the surface. Cleaning itself can actually remove germs, such as in the process of hand washing. In most buildings, however, we need to kill pathogens and not just remove them, and for this reason, disinfectants are needed for this process to be effective. Moreover, each disinfectant formulation kills only specific pathogens, as tested and approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By law in the United States, disinfectants must be registered and approved for specific germs, like Staphylococcus aureus (Staph), for example.
Many buyers mistakenly believe that when an agency like the EPA registers products, it means the formulas are safe and without risk for users. This is not necessarily true. In the case of disinfectants, the EPA certifies that products effectively kill the germs they claim to in a specific timeframe. The agency, however, does not assess the health risks that disinfectants may pose for users. In fact, the few disinfectants that have been reviewed by the EPA and registered as “green” bear the agency’s older Design for the Environment logo rather than its newer Safer Choice logo, precisely because, in the eyes of the EPA, no disinfectants can be deemed “safe.” Because disinfectants by definition are designed to kill, they are evaluated differently than other products that meet Safer Choice criteria. The EPA does allow some disinfectants to be registered as safer/greener, but only relative to other disinfectants.
The top priority for those individuals who are choosing a disinfectant is to select a formula that has been EPA approved to kill the specific pathogens they are concerned with in their building. Furthermore, using disinfectants effectively and safely requires the user to read the label and apply the directions properly:
- Follow the manufacturer’s dilution and/or application directions precisely.
- Allow the prescribed dwell time required to assure product effectiveness.
- Avoid overuse.
- Store safely according to manufacturer recommendations and in a secured area accessible only by qualified personnel.
Greener Means Safer
With effectiveness top-of-mind, the following are qualities to consider for those choosing a disinfectant that is not only effective, but also green, safe and environmentally friendly:
- pH factor. Look for a disinfectant as close to neutral on the pH scale as possible. Neutral disinfectants (pH of 6.0 – 8.0) are safer and less worrisome for the environment than those that are more acidic or overly alkaline. They will generally be safer for surfaces too.
- Disinfectant ingredients are listed in Section 3 of the product’s Safety Data Sheet (SDS). When possible, avoid solutions that contain sodium hypochlorite, acids or other ingredients that could cause damage to surfaces, burns to skin or eyes, or create dangerous fumes if mixed with other chemicals. In addition to the absence of these types of ingredients, greener disinfectant options contain low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Also, be aware that while some ingredients, such as silver, may seem safer/greener, they can raise other environmental issues, such as in this case, heavy metal buildup.
- Scent Considerations. Many people today have sensitivity to perfumes and scents. Consider avoiding formulations with strong fragrances and those that will be least likely to trigger asthma. Some disinfectant formulations are scent-free and are often preferred in health care and long-term care environments where respiratory issues are common.
- Proper (and Greener) Application. In the case of disinfectants (and all other cleaning agents), more is not As mentioned, be sure to apply disinfectants exactly as indicated on their labels—no more and no less. Not only will this ensure that the products work effectively, it will avoid over application, which both wastes disinfectant solution and is less-than-ideal for the environment.
Outside the Solution
The options available for greener disinfectants extend beyond the chemical formula. A few things to consider outside the solution alone include:
- Concentrated disinfectants require less packaging and therefore put less of it into the waste stream, as compared with other options. Consistent with a green philosophy, when possible, use concentrates in order to reduce packaging and waste associated with ready to use and aerosol options. As a side green benefit of reduced packaging, shipping and transportation costs of concentrated disinfectants are also reduced relative to RTU options.
- Dilution Control. Dilution control systems, especially those that are “closed loop,” increase worker safety by reducing the risk of chemical contact. They also promote correct dilution ratios and are concentrated, thereby reducing waste in packaging.
Greener disinfection is about using the greenest products, packaging, and processes available while first-and-foremost killing dangerous pathogens in a facility. Disinfectants are necessary to protect workers and visitors; by choosing the least harmful, most environmentally responsible disinfectant available for the task at hand, cleaning processes can become greener and make facilities safer.
By John Wunderlich, President, Nyco Products Company