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Is the Quest for a Clean World Harming Us?

By Tyler Williams, Director of Scientific Services, PathoSans

Is there such a thing as too clean?

During the pandemic, hygiene theater arose while people rightfully sought to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Disinfecting too often without a strategy in place can be ineffective at eliminating pathogens of concern and expose people to dangerous levels of harmful chemicals. Additionally, the scientific community has recently theorised that creating unnecessarily sterile environments in our homes and public buildings could negatively impact our health in other ways.

A simplified approach to cleaning and disinfecting can address pathogens of concern while also keeping our communities safe from the potential dangers of over-disinfecting. Read on to learn more about immunity and the microbiome, and why “less is more” is a caring strategy that is worth following.

Known Dangers of Overcleaning

We know that using disinfecting chemicals more than necessary or with untested methods can put people at risk of overexposure to toxic ingredients found in many conventional products. One of the practices of hygiene theater was spraying disinfecting chemicals into the air and on surfaces, sometimes when patrons were present. When used without the proper precautions, this can expose people to concerning levels of chemicals that can damage respiratory systems. For example, some buildings installed bipolar ionization units to combat COVID-19 although these systems can produce harmful gases that can damage lungs.

Also, many cleaning chemicals contain toxic chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have been linked to health issues. For example, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, also known as Lilial, is a common synthetic fragrance found in many conventional cleaning products. Lilial is a major skin allergen and has been connected to infertility in men and harm to infants before birth. Isothiazolinones: MI and MCI, used as preservatives in cleaning wipes, have contributed to a skin allergies epidemic and are banned in the European Union and Australia. Using cleaning products containing these chemicals, especially in large quantities, can put people in harm’s way. Increasing the frequency of cleaning with these chemicals can also leave behind residues on surfaces that collect dirt and microorganisms and present physical risks, such as skin and eye irritation or even slips and falls if cleaning floors.

Disinfecting, Immunity and the Microbiome

In addition to the dangerous chemicals sometimes added to cleaning products, research has recently started to investigate whether we are disinfecting too much for our immune systems. More scientists have recently turned their attention to just how many microorganisms we’re exposed to throughout our lives and how they impact our health. As a global community, we’re better at identifying the microorganisms that make us sick than those that benefit our health. Now, some scientists theorise that over-disinfecting can impact our health by removing beneficial microorganisms from our environment.

There is evidence that many bacteria, viruses and fungi are improving our lives. Although the research is new, it suggests that microbes living in soil and on plants are likely improving our immune systems, helping to digest our food and more. We’re still learning how disinfecting impacts exposure to these beneficial microbes. Our human microbiome contains trillions of bacteria, and unnecessary hygiene practices could potentially weaken that microbiome and expose ourselves to sickness.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences raised the alarm about the collateral damage of over-disinfecting in the wake of COVID-19. The researchers argue that extreme hygiene measures put in place during the pandemic could have long-term effects on human health by disrupting the human microbiome. According to Rob Knight, founding director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation and a professor of pediatrics at University of California San Diego, we should also be concerned that sterilizing our surroundings can contribute to antibiotic-resistant superbugs and viruses that are harder to eliminate.

For years, people have been consuming probiotics to improve their internal health. Similarly, some scientists have theorised that we could give the probiotic treatment to homes and public spaces. Much of this research is still under examination and debate, but there is growing evidence that exposure to good bacteria is important and too-sterile environments can threaten our short- and long-term health.

Less is More

Focusing disinfection on high-transmission surfaces can effectively prevent disease spread while limiting unnecessary exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. Consider incorporating the following into your facility maintenance program to demonstrate that your facility cares for its cleaning professionals and its visitors:

  • Simple solutions. Opt for cleaning and disinfecting solutions without added fragrances or other ingredients that can contain VOCs. For example, sodium hydroxide, a cleaner and degreaser, and hypochlorous acid, a sanitiser and disinfectant, are produced in a generator from just water, salt and electricity but are as effective as traditional chemicals like bleach without the safety risks. Using solutions with three simple and known ingredients eliminates the release of VOCs during cleaning and disinfecting and concerns that cleaning professionals will be injured or feel ill due to frequent use or skin contact.
  • Strategic disinfecting. Identify high-touch surfaces where pathogen transmission is most likely to occur, such as doorknobs, check-out counters, elevator buttons and more. Address these areas of concern with a two-step process of cleaning then disinfecting. Apply a cleaner to other areas with lower levels of risk, such as floors. This will ensure disinfectants are used only as much as necessary and avoid overexposure to powerful chemicals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website includes steps for identifying when to clean and when to disinfect.
  • Safe hand sanitizing. Rather than concentrate all of your disease prevention on disinfecting surfaces, implement other tactics that can reduce the spread of illness such as hand sanitizing. Encourage handwashing with soap and water to further reduce the spread of germs. Additionally, consider placing hand sanitiser dispensers in high-traffic areas to promote proper hygiene.

A Strategic Approach to Disinfection

Although the concept of extreme cleanliness is still being explored, we know that the human body is home to a vast ecosystem of organisms that work together to maintain our body. Disruptions to that ecosystem have consequences that we might not be aware of yet. Additionally, disinfecting without a strategy in place can be ineffective and expose people to toxic chemicals with potentially long-term health impacts. Instead, whether managing cleanliness in a commercial facility or your home, you can opt for electro-chemically activated solutions: simply clean with sodium hydroxide and disinfect necessary surfaces with hypochlorous acid.

For more information about cleaning and disinfecting with care, contact us today.

Tyler Williams is Director of Scientific Services at PathoSans, a leading provider of on-site generation (OSG) devices that produce ready-to-use, highly effective cleaners and sanitisers known as electrochemically activated (ECA) solutions. To learn more about effective cleaning and disinfecting solutions compatible with electrostatic technology, visit www.pathosans.com.

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