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A green guide to sanitizers

Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily

Dear Eartha,

I work at a daycare, and we use sanitizers and disinfectants throughout the day. I understand that we need to use something that will really kill everything, but I’m concerned about the harmful chemicals. What are your thoughts on using these?

— Linda from Blue River

Thank you for the question Linda. Of course, you want to make sure your daycare facility is safe, clean and disease-free. Small children are quite the germ carriers, and, as the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” You also want to make sure that you are following the general child-care licensing regulations put forth by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

When HC3 advises businesses in their sustainable business program on “green” cleaning products, they are told to look for one of three certifications: the Green Seal label, the EPA’s designed for the environment logo or Eco Logo. If a product does not contain one of these logos, this does not necessarily rule it out as “harmful” or non-eco-friendly. It could simply mean they have not gone through the appropriate channels to achieve one of these certifications. A couple of good websites for ratings of a number of different products includes GoodGuide, Environmental Working Group and Ecorate.

When it comes to sanitizers and disinfectants, they are used in specific applications. They are designed to kill “pests” such as infectious germs and other micro-organisms including bacteria, viruses and fungi, whereas cleaning does not kill, but only removes the germs, dirt and other organisms by washing them away. For this reason, these products are registered for use as pesticides with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The registration number can be found on the back of the product label. You will not find third-party certifications for sanitizers and disinfectants, either. However, the EPA’s Design for the Environment Antimicrobial Pesticide Pilot project can legally certify disinfecting products that are less hazardous for human health and environment.

Although often used interchangeably, there is a difference between sanitizers and disinfectants. Sanitizers are used to reduce micro-organisms to a level considered safe by public-health standards, and disinfectants kill 99.999 percent of germs on hard, non-porous surfaces or objects. They are ineffective if the surface is not cleaned first, if they do not sit on the surface for a length of time (often 30 seconds) or the dilution ration is incorrect. The EPA determines whether a product is a sanitizer or disinfectant by employing various tests. Disinfectants have three different grades and can be determined by the microorganisms it kills on the label: limited, general and hospital-grade. Furthermore, as part of the evaluation process, disinfectants are assigned a toxicity category ranging from 1 (highly toxic) to category 4 (no exposure warnings required on the label). Keep in mind that the product itself is not listed in this category list, but the “active ingredient” in the disinfectant is.

It is important to understand when you should use a cleaning agent, a sanitizer or a disinfectant based on what you’re doing and what you’re cleaning. Disinfectants are often overused when sanitizers or cleaning will do the trick. After all, not all micro-organisms are bad, and we can overdo it when it comes to cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting. Read the directions carefully of the product you’re using, and, if it requires dilution, be conscientious that you’re getting the formula right. Once again, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sets forth certain guidelines of when a sanitizer should be employed versus a disinfectant.

When a disinfectant is required (disinfecting baby changing tables, for example) look for one assigned category IV under the EPA. Here are some names of disinfectants in which the active ingredient is registered on the EPA’s website in the least hazardous class, category IV: PureGreen 24, Vital Oxide and Ecotru. Interestingly, a disinfectant that contains Thymol as its active ingredient will kill microorganisms just as effectively as bleach and is assigned category IV (the least toxic category) versus category I (the most toxic) for bleach. For sanitizing such as cleaning toys, high chairs and other surfaces, look for a “0” rating on the Hazardous Identification System rating scale and look for products with the word “caution” versus “danger” or “warning”. Lastly, look for approval for food contact surfaces and short dwell time (how much time it must remain on the surface to kill the germs).

Linda, next week I’ll talk about why it is so important to scrutinize the ingredient list on cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants and what ingredients to avoid.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountryconservation.org.


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