WASHINGTON • Businesses across the United States have begun intensive coronavirus disinfection regimens, exposing workers and consumers to some chemicals that are largely untested for human health.
The rush to disinfect is well-intentioned. Executives want to protect employees while abiding by US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Pre-pandemic, corporate cleaners typically “freshened” lobbies every three hours, sanitised rest-rooms every four hours and cleaned other areas at night, said Mr Rich Feczko, national director of systems, standards and innovation at Crothall Healthcare, which cleans hospitals as well as offices.
That pace has now accelerated.
“Our frequencies have ramped up in public places like lobbies and elevators to six to eight times per day,” Mr Feczko said. Restrooms are cleaned every two hours.
Customers are asking for sanitisation to reduce pathogens on a surface, and disinfection to kill all pathogens.
“This is a hazardous proposition,” said Dr Claudia Miller, an immunologist, allergist and co-author of Chemical Exposures: Low Levels And High Stakes. “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 firms are selecting disinfectants from hundreds on List N, the month-old compendium of products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to kill the coronavirus.
Those chemicals have passed tests to show they are effective 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 Lesliam Quiros-Alcala, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Limited studies have raised concerns that some of the chemicals may increase risks of neurological and dermatological problems, as well as respiratory ailments or have reproductive effects.
Environmental health experts note that there are other ways to kill off the virus with fewer potential risks. “I don’t know that I would be using potent disinfectants in an elevator, rather than something like 70 per cent rubbing alcohol,” said Dr Quiros-Alcala.
Cleaning companies sometimes use electrostatic sprayers – machines that positively charge and aerosolise droplets of solution. Spraying is fast, letting cleaners cover 14,000 sq ft of office space an hour, and the positive charge helps the solution to stick to surfaces.
“The risks of aerosolising many of the disinfectants on List N haven’t been studied,” said Mr Ian Cull, president of Indoor Sciences, an environmental consultancy. “And there are very few that are approved for aerosolising or misting or fogging.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still researching whether sprayers and foggers are effective against Covid-19.
For a small percentage of workers, disinfectants pose an immediate risk, said Dr Claudia Miller.
Up to 10 per cent of people – including asthmatics, migraine sufferers, those with allergies or suppressed immune systems – may experience symptoms such as memory loss, trouble focusing, irritability, headaches, seizures, nausea and vomiting, she said.
Repeated or extended exposures can lead to neuro-immune sensitisation and intolerances to common chemicals, foods and drugs.
“That becomes a nightmare for us to deal with,” Dr Miller said.
The cleaning industry has been actively applying new technologies to combat the coronavirus.
The Pennsylvania-based industrial cleaning firm Merrick Group is pivoting to disinfect schools, businesses and hospitals, and 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,” company president Bob Gorski said.
The healthcare sector, however, is proceeding with caution.
“We’re letting the science guide us,” said Mr Geoff Price, co-founder of Oak Street Health, which treats 85,000 patients in 56 clinics.
“Companies are just grasping at different 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 wipes.
One potential chemical alternative is ultraviolet light. Breckenridge Grand Vacations, which owns 800 rooms across five 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 used when humans are not present, and up to now have been used primarily in hospitals. Whether they work as well in larger spaces or if they will damage furniture not designed for intense UV exposure is another question.
In the meantime, commercial landlords may be incentivised to choose the cheapest methods, said Mr 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?” Mr Silver said. “You wonder why anyone would want to go back to work to begin with.”