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Cleaning and Disinfecting in the COVID-19 Era

Information on the effectiveness and appropriateness of various cleaning and disinfecting strategies, when to clean and when to disinfect, how to recognize products that are hazardous to health, and how to assess when particular products or usages are inappropriate for schools.
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Published: 12/08/2020 Last Updated: 09/01/2021

This page provides information on:

  • The effectiveness and appropriateness of various cleaning and disinfecting strategies,
  • When to clean and when to disinfect,
  • How to recognize products that are hazardous to health, and
  • How to assess when particular products or usages are inappropriate for schools.

In December 2020, National Education Association urged caution in over-relying on chemicals to keep students and educators safe from COVID-19. Noting that contaminated surfaces did not at the time appear to be the main way the disease spread, we argued: “over-use and misuse of toxic products, often referred to as ‘hygiene theater,’ may result in less of a focus on implementing other preventative measures, such as enhanced/improved ventilation.

It may also be making building occupants sick, especially those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.” Now, more than a year into the pandemic, we can say with even greater certainty, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has indicated, that the risk of contracting the disease from touching surfaces is “generally considered to be low.”

Despite what is now known about surface transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, NEA remains deeply concerned about the misuse and overuse of disinfectants in schools and institutions of higher education.

NEA remains deeply concerned about the misuse and overuse of disinfectants in schools and institutions of higher education.

The Association’s concern is not based solely on the waste of time and resourses associated with over-reliance on cleaning and disinfection, Indeed, the over-use and misuse of cleaning and disinfection products can also make students and educators sick.

To be sure, there is a time and place for disinfection, particularly when, in an indoor location, there has been a suspect or confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 24 hours. Even then, safer disinfectants should be used.

    Cleaning and Disinfecting Are Part of a Comprehensive Strategy to Combat COVID-19

    Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces alone will not prevent the spread of COVID-19, so a comprehensive cleaning and disinfection plan is imperative as part of a broader strategy that also includes enhanced/improved ventilation, physical distancing, face coverings, frequent handwashing, and vaccinations.

    School authorities must also implement processes for rapidly informing public health officials, educators, educators’ unions, and families about school-based COVID-19 exposures as well as for publicly reporting such cases in a manner that is consistent with appropriate privacy protections. School authorities must also engage in and encourage contact-tracing in cooperation with public health officials; implement requirements for adhering to isolation and quarantine requirements; provide necessary personal protective equipment (PPE); and design and engage in labor-management processes, including collective bargaining and health and safety committees, where available.

    School authorities should engage with educators to design and implement these and other strategies to help mitigate the disease. Educators and their unions must be involved in the development and implementation of these strategies.

    Broadly, school-related COVID-19 guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to cleaning and disinfecting, not sanitizing. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while both sanitizers and disinfectants kill germs, “surface disinfectant products are subject to more rigorous EPA testing requirements and must clear a higher bar for effectiveness than surface sanitizing products. There are no sanitizer-only products with approved virus claims.”

    Virus Transmission from Touching Surfaces

    According to the CDC, “COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land on their eyes, noses, or mouth. In some circumstances, they may contaminate surfaces they touch. People who are closer than 6 feet from the infected person are most likely to get infected.”

    Of particular relevance to cleaning and disinfection, the CDC also notes, “the principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus. It is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low. The most reliable way to prevent infection from surfaces is to regularly wash hands or use hand sanitizer.”

    Cleaning, Sanitizing, Disinfecting: What’s the Difference?

    Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects. Soap/detergent, water, and friction physically removes dirt, bacteria, viruses, or fungi—that is, germs—from surfaces. Effective disinfecting and sanitizing require that a surface must be cleaned first.

    Sanitizing reduces the number of germs on surfaces to levels considered safe for public health, if used as the label directs. Sanitizers, which must be registered with the EPA, are less effective at killing germs than disinfectants and must undergo a less rigorous EPA testing process for effectiveness. EPA-approved surface sanitizers do not carry virus-killing claims.

    Disinfecting destroys almost all infectious germs on a surface, including viruses. It has no effect on dirt, soil, or dust. Disinfectants, which are classified by the EPA as pesticides and must be registered with the EPA, have to be used at the specific dilution/concentration and left glistening wet for the full dwell or contact time as directed on the label.

    What Are the Hazards of Cleaning and Disinfecting Products and Processes?

    Cleaning and disinfecting products are hazards to those using them and others in the spaces in which they are used. Cleaners and disinfectants do different things when it comes to reducing or eliminating germs on surfaces and can contain hazardous chemicals. Some can have immediate health effects, like triggering or exacerbating asthma or causing respiratory irritation or skin or eye damage. Some can also have longer-term effects, including allergies, cancer, and harm to reproductive, endocrine, nervous, and other body systems.

    Disinfectants are anti-microbial pesticides designed to destroy germs and parasites, making them hazardous to people and, often, to the environment. Products with these powerful chemicals (“active ingredients”) must be registered with the EPA. There are about 500 disinfectants approved for use against the coronavirus on EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19). As a point of caution, just because a disinfectant is included on the List N does not mean that its active and inert chemicals are not harmful, even when used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For this reason, EPA compiles a list of active ingredients that fall within its Safer Choice program and qualify for EPA’s Design for the Environment logo. See Additional Resources for information on Design for the Environment and other similar programs.

    The processes through which disinfectants are applied can also pose significant health risks to the individuals using them and to building occupants in the spaces in which they are applied. Electrostatic sprayers, hydrogen peroxide vaporizers, and ozone, hydroxyl, or bipolar ionization devices are marketed as time-saving and effective against the virus that causes COVID-19, but they can increase inhalation concerns and lack the independent tests required to prove their effectiveness and safety. How long products remain hazardous after being applied and how surfaces used for eating must be treated after disinfection will also vary.

    EPA approves few such devices. New Jersey has banned the use of foggers and misters to apply disinfectants and sanitizers, unless they are specifically approved for that purpose. Anyone using these devices must be trained on how to use the equipment, application methods, and their hazards. They also need to be fitted with the appropriate PPE and receive training on its proper use.

    When to Clean and When to Disinfect

    CDC states that cleaning with soap or detergent and water removes contaminants and possibly weakens or damages some of the virus particles on surfaces. This reduces the number of germs and risk of infection from surfaces. They further state that when no one with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 has been in a space, cleaning once a day is usually enough to sufficiently remove virus that may be on surfaces. When soap and water can be used effectively, disinfectants are not needed.

    While disinfecting kills any remaining germs on surfaces and further reduces risk of spreading infection, it is crucial to keep in mind that disinfecting raises serious concerns on its own.

    Schools should consider whether to clean more frequently or disinfect (in addition to regular cleaning) based on a variety of factors such as: high transmission rates in the community, minimal use of face coverings, infrequent handwashing or use of hand sanitizers, or if building occupants are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Facilities that have been occupied by a sick person or someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, should be cleaned and disinfected within 24 hours.

    Special consideration should also be paid to the type of surface and how often surfaces are touched. Generally speaking, surfaces touched more frequently (i.e., high-touch surfaces such as door handles, stairwell railings) present a higher risk and should be prioritized accordingly. More information on how often to clean or disinfect high-touch surfaces can be found on CDC’s webpage on Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility.

    Why Fragrance-Free Cleaners and Disinfectants Are Better

    As the EPA notes, “clean is not a smell.” According to the EPA, “It is a common mistake to think that if a cleaning product doesn’t leave a scent after use, the product didn’t work and the area is not clean. For example, when you smell a citrus fragrance after cleaning it does not mean the product is safer, more ‘natural,’ or does its job. Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting products all contain chemicals. Products that have a fragrance contain additional chemicals that may pose health risks and are unnecessary. Even ‘unscented’ or ‘fragrance-free’ products may contain chemicals, which are added to mask the smell of the chemicals. Nevertheless, it is better to buy a product marked fragrance-free than one that contains fragrance, when possible.”

    The EPA indicates that fragrances can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or swallowed. Many fragrances contain toxic chemicals. They can “irritate the lungs and trigger asthma, headaches, and allergic contact dermatitis (skin reactions),” while higher levels of some fragrance chemicals “have been linked to reproductive problems in women” or to “certain types of cancer.”

    School-Related Challenges and Concerns About Cleaning and Disinfecting

    School environments create special challenges and concerns for cleaning and disinfecting (when it is necessary).

    Consider:

    • Children might be more susceptible to chemicals and other indoor air contaminants. According to EPA, “children breathe more air, eat more food and drink more liquid in proportion to their body weight than adults.” Some states ban children using disinfectants because of the hazards, and the CDC says, “disinfectants should typically not be applied on items used by children, especially any items that children might put in their mouths.”
    • Adequate ventilation in spaces where cleaning and disinfecting products are used is critical so that staff using the chemicals, students, and other school staff don’t inhale the fumes/vapors.
    • Disinfectants are designed for hard, non-porous surfaces. They also must remain glistening wet on surfaces (the “dwell time”) for up to 10 or 12 minutes to be effective. This can be difficult if they are used between classes and/or on desks and tables with soft or porous items on them.
    • Those applying disinfectants require PPE for their eyes, skin, and lungs. If applied in classrooms during the school day, the appropriate PPE must be readily available and there must be sufficient time for staff to properly don and doff (i.e., put on and take off) the PPE.
    • First aid measures and safety equipment (e.g., eyewash stations, safety showers, fire extinguishers) should be readily available whenever chemicals are used in the event of an accident. Employing first air and safety measures could be disruptive, eye wash stations or other equipment may not exist or be easily accessible, and the removing contaminated clothing in an emergency could lead to serious complications in a school environment.

    There Are Safer Solutions

    Cleaning or disinfecting does not have to make people sick or involve the over-use and misuse of toxic products. The most effective way to deal with hazards is prevention. Strategies like enhanced/improved ventilation and using less toxic products or methods (informed substitution) are effective ways to reduce harm. PPE is a crucial component of the safe application of chemicals, but it is better to use products that do not require PPE to get the job done.

    Choose “environmentally preferable” products that are independently certified to contain fewer harmful chemicals than traditional ones. Look for cleaning products certified by Cradle to Cradle (silver or gold levels), Green Seal or Safer Choice (an EPA logo).

    Certified products should not contain ingredients that are known to contribute to asthma, cancer, respiratory irritation, liver, kidney disease, or other health conditions. Requiring the use of certified products should be part of the health and safety program and related cleaning and disinfecting plans. The use of cleaning equipment designed to reduce the amount of chemicals required should also be part of the plan. Such equipment helps prevent injuries, control cross-contamination, and effectively capture dirt, dust, microbes (germs), etc. Examples include walk-off mats, high-efficiency particulate-absorbing (HEPA) vacuum cleaners, microfiber cloths and mops, and time- and energy-saving floor care machines.

    Microfiber Materials

    Microfiber cloths and mops are good choices for cleaning. They don’t kill bacteria, viruses, and other germs the way chemicals do, but they physically remove germs from surfaces. They can get rid of up to 99 percent of germs, including some viruses. The microfibers are measured in denier, the diameter of each fiber. The smaller the “denier” measurement, the better; the best ones are 0.13 denier.

    Understanding the Safety Data Sheet

    Federal hazard communication health and safety laws and regulations from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—and state equivalents—require a chemical manufacturer, distributer, or importer to provide a Safety Data Sheet (SDS, formerly called a Material Safety Data Sheet, or MSDS) in a consistent format. According to OSHA, the SDS includes information such as the properties of each chemical; the physical, health, and environmental health hazards; protective measures; and safety precautions for handling, storing, and transporting the chemical.”

    Whether in hard copy or electronic format, SDSs must be readily accessible to workers when in their work areas. Product labels and training on how to use chemicals appropriately must also be provided under OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard. However, since disinfectants are considered pesticides, the OSHA label requirements do not apply; EPA’s do. They provide detailed information about how the product is to be applied, if it can be used with a sprayer/fogger/mister, and precautions needed.

    It also indicates the correct dwell time for a product to be effective. For more information, see the OSHA brief on Safety Data Sheets. For independent individual chemical hazard information, use ChemHAT15 or New Jersey’s Right-to-Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets.

    For more information, see the OSHA brief on Safety Data Sheets. For independent individual chemical hazard information, use ChemHAT or New Jersey’s Right-to-Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets.

    Personal Protective Equipment Is Critical

    Check to make sure any staff using cleaning or disinfecting products have the appropriate PPE and receive training on how to use the PPE properly, including how to put it on and take it off (i.e., donning and doffing).

    The product label or SDS should explain what PPE is required when using that specific chemical. PPE—such as gloves, safety goggles, gowns, and respirators (for more toxic products)—should be worn when mixing, pouring, and using chemical products to prevent skin contact, eye injuries, and other adverse health effects.

    Anyone using a respirator must be fit tested and trained on how to use it. For more information, check out the CDC’s document on respirators.

    OSHA Description of the Components of a Safety Data Sheet

    “Sections 1 through 8 contain general information about the chemical, identification, hazards, composition, safe handling practices, and emergency control measures (e.g., firefighting).

    This information should be helpful to those that need to get the information quickly. Sections 9 through 11 and 16 contain other technical and scientific information, such as physical and chemical properties, stability and reactivity information, toxicological information, exposure control information, and other information including the date of preparation or last revision.

    The SDS must also state that no applicable information was found when the preparer does not find relevant information for any required element.”

    Key Points to Consider

    School administrators need to work with unions and custodial and maintenance staff to ensure that cleaning and disinfecting is done in the most effective and least hazardous way possible and is part of any broader policy that addresses COVID-19 and other infectious diseases as well as overall building health and safety. Schools, in collaboration with unions, should develop comprehensive plans that present clear protocols for routine cleaning and disinfecting. See Bargaining and Other Labor-Management Engagement on Cleaning and Disinfection for further information.

    Among the key factors to consider when developing a cleaning and disinfecting plan are:

    • When to use disinfectants and when not to (e.g., when soap and water or other non-disinfectant solutions are appropriate and when and where disinfectants are prohibited);
    • Product selection, using the least toxic and most effective products for the task (e.g., using products that are EPA-approved for use against COVID-19; using “environmentally friendly” or “green” products, when possible; and using surface and room/area appropriate products);
    • Practices and processes (e.g., how to clean and disinfect high-touch points and high-risk areas; use of safe equipment and methods when applying disinfectants);
    • Adequate ventilation to dilute product vapors and germs in the air;
    • Availability of hazard information, SDSs, and training on products and procedures;
    • The availability and usage of appropriate and properly fitted PPE;
    • Proper use, dilution, and storage of cleaning and disinfecting products (e.g., not mixing products, proper dwell time, and rinsing); and
    • Factors specific to the population and purpose of rooms/areas (e.g., desks, age of children, and eating surfaces).

    Bargaining and Other Labor-Management Engagement on Cleaning and Disinfection

    Where education employees have the right to bargain collectively over the range of employment issues related to COVID-19, use it to address cleaning and disinfection. If you have a collective bargaining agreement, review its content for health and safety language that addresses the issue directly or by implication. Even if you cannot bargain collectively, you can advocate with the school board and other members of the community for safe and effective cleaning and disinfecting practices.

    In developing contract language or language for other labor-management work, make sure to seek the development of a comprehensive cleaning and disinfecting plan that includes when to use disinfectants and when not to, use of the least toxic and most effective products for the task, training, storage, PPE, and other key issues.

    Do not overlook opportunities that can be used in addition to bargaining or if bargaining over cleaning and disinfection is not possible. Such opportunities may include existing labor-management health care committees, health and safety committees, or COVID-19/infectious disease task forces. Use, create, or repurpose committees or other mechanisms to engage with management in instances where education employees lack collective bargaining rights or where the scope of bargaining is too limited to address COVID-19 issues.

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