Rush to Disinfect Oces Has Some Environmental Health
The EPA list of approved cleaning agents for the
coronavirus includes some that haven’t been proven safe
June 15, 2020, 2:00 AM CDT
Businesses across the U.S. have begun intensive Covid-19
disinfection regimens, exposing returning workers and
consumers to some chemicals that are largely untested for
human health, a development that’s alarming health and
environmental safety experts.
The rush to disinfect is well-intentioned. Executives want to
protect employees while abiding by U.S. Centers for
Disease Control & Prevention guidelines (and to avoid
liability). Pre-pandemic, corporate cleaning stas typically
“freshened” lobbies every three hours, sanitized restrooms
every four hours and cleaned other areas at night, said
Rich Feczko, national director of systems, standards and
innovation at Crothall Healthcare, which cleans hundreds
That pace has now accelerated. “Our frequencies have
ramped up in public places like lobbies and elevators to 6-
8 times per day,” said Feczko. Restrooms are cleaned every
two hours. “Before the pandemic, clients were happy if their
trash was emptied and vacuum marks were in the plush
carpet,” said Jill Frey, owner of Ohio-based Cummins
Facility Services. Now, customers ask for sanitization
(reducing pathogens on a surface) and disinfection (killing
“This is a hazardous proposition,” said ,
an immunologist, allergist and co-author of
. “Cleaners tend to
go in with hugely toxic chemicals. We’re creating another
problem for a whole group of people, and I’m not sure we’re
actually controlling infections.”
Cleaning companies are selecting disinfectants from
hundreds on , the month-old compendium of
products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency
to kill the novel coronavirus. Those chemicals have passed
tests to show they’re eective against the pathogen, but
“this doesn’t mean that they have been approved because
they’re considered safe with regard to human health,” said
exposure scientist , an assistant
professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public
Limited studies, including on , have raised
concerns that some might increase risk of neurological
and dermatological problems, as well as respiratory
ailments like , or have notable .
And while those studies don’t necessarily mean the
disinfectants are harmful to humans, environmental health
experts contend that risks are rising sharply with the
increase in exposure. They also note that there are
alternative ways to kill o the virus that carry less potential
asthma reproductive eects
“I don’t know that I would be using potent disinfectants in
an elevator, rather than something like 70% rubbing
alcohol,” said Quirós-Alcalá. (The rubbing alcohol
option is approved by the CDC).
The disinfection methods themselves may also prove
concerning to employees. Cleaning companies sometimes
use electrostatic sprayers—machines which positively
charge and aerosolize small droplets of cleaning solution.
Spraying is fast, allowing cleaners to cover 14,000 square
feet of oce space per hour, and the positive charge allows
the solution to stick to surfaces.
Electrostatic disinfection, which aerosolizes chemicals, is
used to clean a medical oce in Riverside County,
California, on April 15. The potential risk of aerosolizing
many disinfectants hasn’t been studied. Photographer:
Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
“The risks of aerosolizing many of the disinfectants on List
N hasn’t been studied,” said Ian Cull, president of Indoor
Sciences, . “And there are
very few that are approved for aerosolizing or misting or
fogging.” The EPA is still researching whether sprayers and
foggers are .
an environmental consultancy
eective against Covid-19
A spokesperson for the EPA didn’t return several requests
Meanwhile, enclosed areas with poor ventilation—
particularly common to high-rises that often recirculate air
—greatly increase exposure to cleaning agents, said Cull.
“Many are hampered by their equipment and unable to
ventilate more,” he said.
For a small percentage of workers, disinfectants pose an
immediate risk, said Claudia Miller. Up to 10% of people—
including asthmatics, migraine suerers, those with
allergies or immune disorders or suppressed immune
systems—may experience symptoms such as memory loss,
trouble concentrating, mood swings, irritability,
headaches, seizures, nausea and vomiting, she said.
Repeated or extended exposures can lead to neuroimmune sensitization and intolerances to common
chemicals, foods and drugs. “That becomes a nightmare
for us to deal with as physicians,” Miller said.
A worker uses a disinfectant fogger at the Denver airport
on May 6. The EPA is still researching whether foggers are
eective against Covid-19.
Photographer: Aaron Ontiveroz/Denver Post via Getty
The cleaning industry has been actively applying new
technologies to combat the coronavirus. Merrick Group, a
Pennsylvania-based industrial cleaning company now
pivoting to disinfect schools, businesses and hospitals,
uses a proprietary process that propels a combination of
isopropyl alcohol and quaternary ammonium onto
surfaces using a CO2 gun. The no-wipe chemical dries
within a minute, and the EPA has pronounced it safe for
some food-grade and hospital surfaces.
“If we can spray it in a Hershey’s food plant or at a hospital,
we can certainly spray it on a school bus,” said Merrick
Group President Bob Gorski. The health care sector,
however, is proceeding with caution.
“We’re letting the science guide us,” said Geo Price, cofounder of Oak Street Health, which treats 85,000 patients
in 56 clinics. “There’s a lot of new stu out there, and I think
companies are just grasping at dierent things to throw at
the problem, and it’s not always fact-based. Existing
technologies do the work if they’re applied correctly.” Oak
Street, for example, cleans its patient transport vans with
One potential chemical alternative is ultraviolet light.
Breckenridge Grand Vacations, which owns 800 rooms
across ve resorts in the ski town of Breckenridge,
Colorado, scooped up 50 Puro UV disinfection lights, which
kill pathogens illuminated for 15-30 minutes.
The lights are deployed when humans aren’t present, and
up to now have been used primarily in hospitals. Whether
they work as well in larger spaces (or damage furniture not
designed for intense UV exposure) is another question.
Their overall benet is still being evaluated. Last month,
New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority a
pilot program with Puro, which includes an evaluation by
scientists at Columbia University.
In the meantime, commercial landlords can’t wait for
science, and may be incentivized to choose the cheapest
methods, said Michael Silver, chairman of commercial real
estate group Vestian. “If a business comes up with a great
plan, and the landlord agrees, then who’s paying for it?”
Silver said. “You wonder why anyone would want to go back
to work to begin with.”
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