The “cleaning” alarm bells are ringing related to Ebola in the United States, Europe, and of course, Africa. As serious as this is and as critical as it is to find ways to stop the spread of this deadly disease, we must ensure that the steps we take when cleaning facilities are effective, necessary, and protective of the environment wherever and whenever possible.
I say this because when the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic began in Hong Kong more than 10 years ago, there were reports that people could smell chlorine bleach in the air for days once cleaning steps were taken to halt the spread of the disease. This was the result of dramatically increased cleaning using chlorine bleach in virtually all types of facilities. Cleaning professionals were using these products to clean and disinfect just about everything from floors and ceilings to the controls on elevators.
While chlorine bleach has been recognized as a surface disinfectant since the mid-1800s, and it certainly has served us well in many ways for both cleaning and disinfecting, it cannot be denied that chlorine bleach—especially in excessive amounts—can prove harmful to building users, cleaning professionals, and the environment. Some traditional cleaning products formulated with chlorine bleach have also been known to cause skin and eye burns, irritate the respiratory tract, trigger asthma attacks, and even produce a poisonous gas if mixed with other products, specifically any product containing ammonia. And with Hong Kong citizens reporting that they could smell bleach in the air for days during the SARS outbreak, we can assume too much of these products were being used and most likely being used in places and for cleaning surfaces where they simply were not needed.
Related to this, there was also a dramatic increase in many parts of the world of disinfectant use during the SARS outbreak. These disinfectants may have proved effective, but once again, were likely overused. Disinfectants, as necessary as they can be, can also have detrimental health and environmental impacts, especially if overused or used improperly.
Because SARS was one of the first global public health scares in modern times, and because it moved around the world so rapidly (in a matter of months beginning in early 2003, SARS spread to 29 countries, killing nearly 10 percent of the people it infected; more than 8,000 people worldwide became sick with SARS, and according to the World Health Organization, 774 died), there was an almost-understandable overreaction to the outbreak. And when it came to cleaning, this often resulted in an overuse and misuse of chlorine bleach, disinfectants, and other traditional cleaning products.